Stop “Miss”-ing Me (aka “Dr. Thomas if You’re Nasty”)

Twelve years ago, I was roughly a year into my journey as a doc student. At the time, I began working at a French Immersion school. There I met several colleagues from a variety of countries and backgrounds, some who would eventually become my “work fam” and lifelong friends. There was one colleague in particular, with whom I had a cordial-from-a-distance working relationship.

This colleague was a bit notorious for having a short fuse, and carried this reputation among staff and students alike. The students intentionally used to rile him up by calling him “Mr. ______,” as we all knew what would happen next.

“It’s Dr.!!!” he would invariably growl in frustration, eliciting a good laugh from the kids. I told them that their behavior was disrespectful, but to be honest, I didn’t understand why he got so worked up.

I swore to myself I would never be like that. I mean, I got it (to an extent). I was in the doc program myself, and had enrolled as a means of self-preservation. In my short career, I was already no stranger to professional disrespect.

My first three years, I felt like I had to prove myself to administrators who were determined to drive me out of the field. One even questioned my commitment. As a baby-faced 22-year-old, I was often mistaken for a sixth-grader in the elementary school where I worked. As a matter of fact, I fit in more height-wise with the fifth graders in my homeroom. I made some rookie mistakes, especially being alternatively certified and fresh out of school myself. I vividly remember, about two weeks into my career, an administrator sitting me down and saying, “you’re young. You still have time to find something you want to do, and be good at it.”

The hell with that advice. I wanted to do this. I wanted to be good at this.

She ended the lecture by telling me she was going to do me a favor and get me fired by the end of the year. Yet, I survived a year of hazing and harassment…then promptly moved to another school where I got more of the same for the next two years.

I was tired of being mistreated and stomped on because I was young and inexperienced. In some instances, I was set up to fail. As soon as I graduated with my Masters that May, I promptly re-enrolled in the doctoral program to prove to the world, “yes, I’m young, but I’m serious and here to stay.”

Luckily my third school (year four) went way better, as the administrators there nurtured me and gave me opportunities to lead. I only stayed for a year because the school was restructured, and I came to the French Immersion school for year five. Already, from the start, I felt at home here.

So here we are. Twenty-six years old, slightly more seasoned, full of baggage and professional trauma, second year doc student. Finally, I’m feeling valued at this new school. I am puzzled, though, why this dude keeps kirking out.

Fast forward thirteen years later.

Currently pushing 40, I no longer get mistaken for an elementary school kid; however, I still get carded on a regular basis and have been told that I look about ten years younger than I actually am.

I finished the PhD in Education program in 2017, and now, Doc, I have a new respect for you.

Sixteen years in the field, I’m no longer a rookie, and through my work both in and out of my district, no one is questioning my allegiance to education. Even the person who wanted to “do [me] a favor and get [me] fired,” years later came back and congratulated me on a couple of occasions.

This is all well and good.

However, there’s a new form of professional disrespect which has nationwide implications. I call it, “Miss”-ing me.

Now, wait a minute…I know that I may have lost some people here. Once, I put on Facebook that one of my goals was to get more comfortable insisting on my title, and I got many questions about this.

First, let me say, this is not an ego thing (although just about everything is an ego thing to some degree). I don’t get off on anyone calling me Dr. Thomas, ooooh la la, so fancy. As a matter of fact, I have struggled with this internally for many years, and still continue to do so. I do not think my degree makes me special, or better, or anything like that. I fight myself every single time when I have the urge to correct someone. I am just as comfortable being called Sarah, perhaps even more so.

But I’m not comfortable when people “Miss” me.

See it to Be It

Nationally, at least 13.4% of the population is Black (more, if you include people of mixed-race and the Afro-Latinx community). However, in 2016, only 4.3% of doctoral degrees were awarded to Black people. There are even some disciplines where, in 2017 (my graduation year), not one Black person earned a PhD.

This lack of representation alone is enough reason to insist on being addressed by the title of “doctor,” especially working in the field of education. Although I am no longer classroom-based, I serve the students of my district, and my students need to see Black PhDs, EdDs, and other people with terminal degrees. While not all students need to follow this same path, they need to see more of us to know that if this is what they want for themselves, it is well within the realm of possibility. I really hate the phrase, “you have to see it in order to achieve it,” because there is always a first, but I get the gist and agree with the overall premise of that statement.

The Same Respect

Being a doctoral candidate is not an easy task. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears…well in my case, more literal tears than anything. The doctoral program will test and challenge you in ways that make you think you’ll never make it out alive. But then one day, surprise! You successfully defend your dissertation, and before you know it, you’re walking across the stage, and it’s all over. You survived!

I do know some colleagues who are insistent on people using their doctoral title as a recognition of this hard work. To me, that’s not of major concern. Yes, I’m proud I made it. Yes, I was able to make it despite challenges such as concussions and a car driving through the front of my townhouse. Still, there are many other people who have gone through way harder things than I have, and don’t have a fancy title to show for it. So that’s not the reason I’m trippin.

From time to time, I go on podcasts, present at conferences, go on panels, contribute to blogs, etc. etc. etc. There have been numerous occasions (way too many to count), where I am on a panel or among an assortment of colleagues, and it’s “Dr. _______, Dr. ________, Dr. _________, and Sarah.”

Stop. The. Madness.

Also notable is that in these situations, I’m quite often the only person who looks like me.

I always wonder, why can’t it be “Bob, Suzy, Jim, and Sarah,” or if you’re feeling froggy, “Dr. Smith, Dr. Jones, Dr. Miller, and Dr. Thomas”? By introducing everyone else as “Dr.____” and me as “Sarah,” this is implying to the audience that I do not have the same expertise as the other (again, usually White, usually male) contributors. We went through the same hell to get those three letters behind our name. We deserve the same professional respect.

TL;DR — If you refer to one person as “Dr.,” everyone else in the room with those credentials should also be “Dr.”

A Final Word

I had a great conversation about this topic on my good friend and edu-sis Tara Linney’s show on July 23 of this year. It was a rich discussion, which included my friends Cicely Day and Jorge Valenzuela. You can check it out here.

People have complicated motivations for “Miss”-ing (or “Mr.”-ing) others when they know better.

It may be to get a rise out of the other party, like the kids used to do to Doc.

It may be to assert dominance and/or knock someone down a few notches if they feel threatened. I had a recent situation where a peer, also with a PhD themselves, trolled me for an entire year. I think this was their version of a pissing contest (pardon my language). This was particularly bothersome because it was another person of color, so one would think that they knew the significance. Even worse, I perceived a certain tone of condescension every time the person “Miss”-ed me…but I was “Sarah” whenever they needed a favor (not once did they ever address me other than “Ms. Thomas” or “Sarah,” although I refused to stoop to their level and they were always “Dr. ______”). In response, I had started addressing myself as “Dr. Thomas“ to everyone within that circle, even in situations where I had always been “Sarah.”

I am no longer in correspondence with this person, and have started to slowly go back to the same Sarah that I’ve always been. I don’t feel compelled to be addressed as Dr., unless you feel compelled to address me as “Miss” in a professional setting. And if we are both Dr., then we can both be Drs. (Queue Dr. Who meme). Or, even better, we can keep it on a first name basis.

As a good friend of mine once said, “call me [first name] or call me Dr. [Last Name], but don’t call me Miss!”

Photo of a random person on Pexels, who looks like she may also be tired of being “Miss”-ed

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Sarah Thomas, PhD

Educator/Regional Tech Coordinator. Passionate about using social media to connect w/ educators around the world. We all have a story. What's yours? #EduMatch