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I'm a 22-year-old college student soon to be entering my final semester of my undergraduate degree. For the second time this semester (and for entirely unrelated occasions), I've been contacted by former teachers via e-mail. Both of these teachers are figures from my elementary school, which runs from Kindergarten through 5th grade where I'm from. It is unlikely that I've interacted with either person since entering the 6th grade and certainly not within the past five years. Both cases have involved requests of me to return to my elementary school and speak with students about the academic and professional experiences I've had throughout college.

I'm perfectly comfortable with responding to these requests up but I'm unsure of how to address the e-mail. On one hand, every encounter I've ever had with either teacher occurred prior to my teenage years -- addressing them by anything other than "Ms." or "Mr." seems strange. On the other hand, I'm an adult and the power balance inherent in the teacher-student relationship we once had has dissolved, so it seems equally strange to maintain the formality.

I realize I am probably overthinking this but it's the second incident in recent times that I've faced this question. What is the correct way to address one of your former teachers in a casual setting? Is it improper to address a former teacher by their first name unless invited to, or is it more awkward to maintain the formality? My question was spurred by an e-mail, but I'm from a relatively small town and the chances of me encountering a former teacher while out and about back home are high, so I'm curious as to what the proper etiquette is in a more general sense.

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Having taught in both the US and UK, my experience is that most former students address me by my title and Surname on first instance of meeting again. In the UK context this is less uncomfortable than the more formal greeting, "Hello, Sir" and in the US it goes the other direction on the familiarity scale as it doesn't assume anything other than the former professional relationship. This "middle of the road" approach allows the teacher to invite a more informal approach, and usually doesn't show any more than politeness (rather than deference) by the former student.

By the way, I use this approach myself with my former teachers (even though I am in my 50s).

  • By title and surname, you mean something like Ms. Doe/ Mr. Snow ? – DS R Dec 8 '17 at 19:22
  • Yes, the Ms. Doe form is good example of title and surname. – r m Dec 8 '17 at 19:48
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Neither way is considered improper.

Addressing them by their full/first name is probably the choice that best suits your situation. It shows an element of professionalism and as you said equal footing and would help to stress making a new relationship with them rather than reverting and building off the one you had with them as a student.

However, addressing them as you used to (Ms. or Mr.) is still fine. As teachers they would still get it all the time from past students much older than you (I have teacher friends who confirm this), you mentioned how it is a formality but I would say its the opposite; this choice focuses more on the fondness you once had for them as there is no actual formality required here. Some people feel good about referencing how things used to be and would call them Mr. or Ms. out of nostalgia but I imagine its been so long that this is not the case for you.

Edit: Australian culture, but should be applicable in American culture too.

  • Sidenote: Mind that this may be different in other cultures. E.g. in Germany, addressing a former teacher (or any adult person for that matter) by their first name without being offered to do so before is in 9 out of 10 contexts considered really rude. ( There are companies that have that "everybody says 'Du' - policy" where it is considered ok by definition. But still not everyone will appreciate it.) – Fildor Dec 7 '17 at 8:26
  • @Fildor I can only speak for what ive experienced of Australian culture. I assume its similar to OP's (American) culture in this respect but as you say there are plenty others that would be different – Jesse Dec 7 '17 at 10:07
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    Absolutely. I did not mean to criticize your answer. Just wanted to add that culture does have an influence in case some other person than OP is in the same situation. – Fildor Dec 7 '17 at 11:59
  • @Fildor, definitely. As a German is was actually shocked when I read this and didn't pay any attention to the locale. – AK_is_curious Dec 7 '17 at 12:29
  • @Jesse you might want to incorporate your location (Australia) to your answer. Seems to be an important information. – Vylix Dec 9 '17 at 7:26
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I would address them in the same way you used to address them, regardless of how much time has passed of how the power difference has disappeared/changed. This is the best default, because this is how you're used to addressing them. There could also be some charm or nostalgia to it. If they'd prefer to be called by their first name, they'll feel free to say so. That could even lead to a light-hearted exchange about how much time has passed, how different things are now, etc. By contrast, if you use their first name out of the gate but they wish you'd address them differently, they probably won't let you know.

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Where only the previous teacher-student relationship exists, it is most straightforward and customary to use the address of their title and family name: Mr Lipschitz, Dr Jones, Ms Liu, etc.

The excess formality of "sir"/"ma'am" is likely to make the former teacher feel awkward about establishing a more natural relationship as that between adults; it makes you seem as though you see only the teacher-student relationship is possible. Avoid it where possible, unless it is also a natural term of address for a respected senior member of the community.

Once invited, either explicitly by the former teacher or implicitly by an email signature or the use of informal communication, you can switch to a personal name.

Just remember to use the standard address (title and name or generic formality) when first arriving at the school and when around students, adhering to the social norm in that environment, avoiding embarrassment for the teacher in front of their class.

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Apparently the locale is very relevant for this question. Since I am Swiss and not American, my answer will not address your locale but the german-speaking locales (I think most of Western Europe, too?).

In German, the default salutation is held formally until the older person invites the younger one to use the first name. If no such invitation is given, you must keep addressing them the formal way. Using informal salutations or the informal version of "you" ("Du" instead of "Sie") will be perceived as very rude and shows that you have no respect for that person. (This does not count for children. Children are always adressed informally)

On the other hand, I'm an adult and the power balance inherent in the teacher-student relationship we once had has dissolved, so it seems equally strange to maintain the formality.

The aforementioned formality standard applies to the teacher-student example as well:
As student you are a child and the teacher is an adult. Therefore the teacher addresses you informally while you use formal salutations. After your graduation, many teachers (but not all) will offer you to call them by their first name.
If they do not, you should absolutely avoid informal salutations. Even when you become an adult yourself, it is up to the teacher (the older one of you two) to offer informality and not you.

but I'm from a relatively small town and the chances of me encountering a former teacher while out and about back home are high

This is the exact same situation as with your e-mail. You address him formally, which gives him the opportunity to offer informality.

Source: was an elementary school teacher

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