First Name Basis

Call me Jen. Why we use first names at BIS.

First names for teachers and staff have been a constant at Brisbane Independent School for 50 years. Lately there is discussion in primary schools from greater Brisbane, to wider Queensland, as to whether first names in the school provides better outcomes for students.

At BIS we have a strong focus on three core values, Courageous Learning balanced by Freedom and Responsibility, and they underpin our pedagogy and curriculum. A power imbalance is anathema to successfully exploring these values. Taking away a teacher’s name, and replacing it with a title, establishes a power imbalance in the teacher/ student dynamic. The child is only given a first name, the adult is given a title.

When a child feels like their voice is not equal, it makes Courageous Learning much more difficult. The imbalance plays out as “The Adult has more power than me so I must defend the small areas of power that are mine!” Children in environments of power imbalance either have to dig in their little feet or retreat. We want our students to feel safe to explore Freedom and Responsibility. This means exploring behaviours around complex values such as respect. To do this, they must experience what success and failure feels like. To do that, our children must feel safe, supported and of equal value to our teaching staff.

Power imbalances also sit at the core of Child Protection. Children need to have a felt experience of saying “no” to an adult. Adults make mistakes and sometimes adults are not safe. Our Pedagogy, based on emotional vulnerability, demands that children can explore holding and sharing power. When we have titles before our names, it increases the likelihood of a child attributing all the “ideas” of that role onto an “authority figure.” If we say, “Let’s see what the Principal thinks?” versus “Let’s see what Jen thinks?”, automatically a power structure is implied and a child’s voice loses its power. At Brisbane Independent School, we want our students to explore their edges of risk knowing that they can always say “stop” or “no” and that no voice has more authority than their own.

This trust in their voice, fostered by freedom to explore their own boundaries, provides BIS kids with a greater ability to navigate peer group challenges in their teens. After BIS students complete their primary school years, they go into the world knowing what happens when you draw a line with a peer or an adult. Calling all our staff by their first name encourages personal exploration of power in social structures, and gives the students valuable practice in establishing boundaries.Explorations of power sharing, intellectual risk-taking and vulnerability are an essential part of our Curriculum. Our students are often asked to take on some big challenges that see them being vulnerable with their learning. When our students are exploring leadership, stewardship, communication, group skills and creativity, we work on creating an emotional environment where each person is seen as worthy of the same level of compassion, support, justice and freedom of expression. It doesn’t matter who you are, your voice will be heard and your opinions considered. This is fundamental to our curriculum and why titles don’t fit in our classrooms.

The focus on coherent choices about how power is handled is such an important part of BIS. A small gesture, such as using First Names, can foster a courageous learner to develop a balanced approach to freedom and responsibility, through understanding how to nurture and protect the self, the community and the world around us.

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