First published in The Hindu, 27 May 2024

When I was a doctoral student in the United States, I had a friend, who, like me, was from India. Though I struggled initially, I started calling my professors by their first names, just like the other students in my department. My Indian friend persisted in calling her professors ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’

But, she often spoke disparagingly of them, saying “X sir is an idiot” or “Y ma’am doesn’t know a thing.” When I asked her why she didn’t refer to her professors by their names, she said it was disrespectful!

I often recall this incident, as I teach a continuing education course where the participants are mainly in-service teachers, keen to upskill themselves. One of my requests to them is to call me by my first name without affixing any titles. While many do so, a few participants are diffident. And, a small subset is practically reluctant despite repeated requests. But I don’t blame them.

In India, we have a very strong cultural trope that puts teachers on a pedestal and reveres or even deifies them. But as the anecdote above illustrates, does our construct of ‘respect’ embrace only superficial facets or does it extend to holding a person in deep regard? In the context of education, what are the consequences of holding someone in high esteem for a participatory approach?


The reason I persist in coaxing all participants to call me by my first name isn’t purely rhetorical as this simple act also has pedagogical implications regarding participants’ relationship to knowledge, how they perceive their own learning and how they view me.

As they’re all adult learners, I prefer to think of myself as a facilitator. Someone who has some degree of knowledge and expertise in the areas we’re discussing. But that does not make me an authority, or the ultimate arbiter of truth.Additionally, expertise is usually accompanied by blind spots, and, every once in a while, we need to re-examine models and theories within a field through fresh eyes.

Further, calling me ma’am creates a psychological distance between the facilitator and participants. Rather than being a “sage on the stage,” I view my role as being aligned with that of my participants.

We’re all lifelong learners, seeking to enhance our knowledge and collective wisdom. Just as I have experiences and knowledge to draw on, the participants have deep wells ofinsights, anecdotes and examples to share that either buttress or challenge some of the claims made during class discussions.

For us to have truly meaningful exchanges, participants need to feel empowered to question, challenge or critique arguments put forth in class, either by me or any of the participants. They also need to question the readings. Just as we assume that the teacher has the last word, textbooks too are often perceived as the fount of truth.

To be effective learners, participants have to take ownership of their learning and not view the facilitator as someone directing, or worse, dictating, their learning journey.

My role, perhaps, is to nudge each one to question many of the assumptions and preconceptions they mightbring. And to help them define their own learning trajectories as they progress in directions that are meaningful and relevant to their unique contexts. But I too am journeying with them, refining my own views, unpacking my presuppositions and deepening my understanding.

Do my participants respect me? Sure, they do, just as I respect each of them, their perspectives and questions. When respect is earned, it’s usually bi-directional. It’s hard to hold someone in high esteem if that person doesn’t respect you as an individual.

Every student and teacher, regardless of age or level of education, deserves to be respected. What is the point of education if it doesn’t emphasize our common humanity?

Finally, when participants express dissenting viewpoints or ask tough questions, everyone, including me, stands to gain. Often, the enriching exchanges we have in class leave me energized and enthused. I only hope that the participants look forward to the next session as eagerly as I do. My only request: No ‘ma’am’, please.

(The author is Visiting Faculty, Azim Premji University.)