Fostering the family spirit in school may sometimes seem unnecessary, but it brings about benefits for both teachers and students.
I REMEMBER how it used to be growing up in what was known as Teluk Anson (now Teluk Intan), Perak, way back in the 1960’s.
There were so many people in our community whom we didn’t know by their “real names” and yet were such a significant part of our childhood.
“Run to Aunty Betel-leaf’s house and give her this,” my mother would say, thrusting a tray of freshly-baked sweet potato cakes into my hands.
“And while you are there, tell Walking-Stick Uncle next door that your father wants to see him about the letter.”
I remember the times when I would cheerfully yell out to my mother in the kitchen, “Gold-tooth Aunty is here,” when I caught a flash of gold and her round pleasant face appeared at our gate.
Back-House Aunty, Weeping-Moustache Uncle, Brinjal-lady, they were all part of our lives, and these were also the ways they used to address each other. These titles were not meant to be derogatory or offend, and indeed no one was offended.
It was something that was understood and accepted and made us feel part of the community. Many years later as an adult, I had to write the address on an invitation card to Aunty Betel-Leaf and asked my mother for her name.
She laughed, saying she really did not know. They had been friends for more than 20 years, shared confidences, recipes, local gossip, family problems, pregnancies, celebrations and tragedies, but were not sure about each other’s first names!
But this did not affect the bond of friendship and familiarity in any way. And that was the way it was for many of us then.
We had proper or specific terms to address close relatives. Your mother’s younger brother would be addressed as Maama in Tamil, his wife would be your Athay. Your father’s older brother would be Periappah and the list went on.
Apart from this, every other older person was instantly conferred the title of Aunty or Uncle.
To a large extent, this is something that we have carried with us even to this day. Maybe it’s rooted in Asian traditions of respect or veneration for the elders, but people here don’t freely address another person by just their name alone.
The exceptions, of course, are when the person is someone you know very well, a close friend, someone much younger, or perhaps lower down the rung of some status ladder.
Aunties and uncles abound in every social situation and at every level. It is the same in our national language; we have Kakak, Abang, Pakcik, Makcik, and the list goes on.
It does not matter if we are of different ethnicities or faiths, and if the person we addressed was not our real sister, brother, uncle or aunt.
The lady who serves your nasi lemak is usually a Kak or Makcik. If she is someone younger, you refer to him or her as Adik.
Yes, we are all one big family of aunts and uncles and cousins and brothers and sisters.
It is the same thing among our colleagues in the staffroom. Younger teachers usually address the older ones with a prefix ‘kak’ before their names. Those who are thus addressed may appreciate it as a mark of respect for their seniority.
Others may have just gotten used to it over the years, even if they prefer to be addressed by their first name, minus all the honorifics.
Students, of course, address teachers as Cikgu, Puan, Encik or Teacher, Sir, Ma’am, Mr, Mrs or Miss before their names.
I have heard of teachers and even school principals who want their students to refer to them as “Mummy”. Though it may seem a little odd or unprofessional, it has seemed to work well among some student groups.
While some teachers cringe at the very thought of being addressed in such a way, others actually take pride in it, especially when their “kids” compete with each other to vie for their “school-mother’s” attention by offering to run errands like carrying her books or cleaning the board.
They also tend to put in more effort in the subjects they teach, to earn a few brownie points. Perhaps doing so creates a kind of maternal bonding and respect between students and teacher. It also makes them behave and perform better in class.
This, in turn, helps in the teaching-learning process in the classroom.
To some teachers, however, honorifics are a big deal. I remember one teacher who would not respond unless she was addressed as Datin.
Not everyone is thrilled by all the “pseudo-honorifics”. I remember another teacher many years ago. She was single, in her forties, with silver streaked hair, and always clad in long, dull-coloured skirts.
She was an excellent teacher, firm and confident with a no-nonsense approach to her work. But she mostly kept to herself and, on occasion, could be a little snappish.
The only time we saw her flustered was when she entered the staff room one day and plonked her exercise books loudly on her table. This was so uncharacteristic of her that we immediately looked up.
“She called me Aunty,” she said with a mortified look on her face. “... she called me Aunty!”
What’s in a word?
We found out later that a young new teacher trainee had approached her for something and addressed her as ‘Aunty”.
Some of the less kind among us snickered. Someone said that it was lucky she wasn’t called “Gran”.
Well the upshot of it all was that after the term break, this teacher came back to school in a smart snazzy outfit, with burgundy highlights in her hair.
School leaders sometimes feel the need to foster a “family” atmosphere in the school and take pains to remind us of this during our staff meetings.
At times it is said in a chastising manner after some misunderstanding among staff gets a little out of hand.
“We are all members of the same family, so we ought to be understanding and sharing, instead of quarrelling.”
There are times you agree, and at other times when you don’t. The truth is that despite all the well-meaning efforts by those in charge to promote this “family-feeling” among the staff, there are times when we feel we don’t belong. It may be possible to have more of the family-feeling in a school where the staff enrolment is considerably less.
But in most schools in the country, there are simply too many teachers and it is impossible to have close bonds with everyone.
In fact, at times we may not even know the names of every teacher in our staff even though we have been in the school for years.
We have our own groups and sub-groups in the staffroom.
We have our cliques, our really close friends, those who belong to the same subject panel or committee, or those we travel with or sit near us. There are divisions and sub-divisions which cannot be avoided.
At times, even teachers in the different sessions, afternoon or morning in the same school, feel that they belong to two different schools altogether.
So with all our divisions and differences, and whether these are deliberate or inevitable, they are all real.
And no amount of special “mutual-forgiveness” or “embracing each other” sessions that are sometimes held during professional development courses can make these divisions go away.
But then, so what? So what if we don’t feel that we are part of one big happy family in school?
When you think about it, it really doesn’t matter either. How we address our colleagues as long as they are okay with it.
What really is important is mutual respect, trust and cooperation. After all, we are all intertwined by the common goal of educating our students.