Secondary Education

Collective Nouns for Students

Teaching high school students is exactly like this.

Humor aside, there is a real conundrum in working with people that are not quite children and not quite adults. On one hand, adolescents can handle complex and abstract concepts and apply their knowledge in incredibly innovative ways. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of my dealings with students, even the most advanced and mature students in my exclusively high-level high school, are remarkably similar to the woman speaking in the aforelinked video. (You didn’t watch it? It’s only 40 seconds and very safe for work, give it a go.)

The issue du jour is what exactly to call them. In my university, we spent quite a while discussing how to refer to students. When a high school teacher says “hey guys” to a whole class, it runs the risk of being both sexist and inappropriately informal. Something like “hello students” sounds oddly robotic and impersonal. With an all-male class, “gentlemen” seems fitting, but an all-female class runs into issues with “ladies” (sexism) and “gentlewomen” (uncommonness). Mixed-sex classes run into all kinds of noun problems.

In Korea, we have a word 얘들아 (ye-deur-a) which teachers (and students) use to mean “hey everyone” in a way that only refers to the students. English doesn’t really have the same. In younger years, we can call children children, but once they are in their teens, such conventions become clunky.

Many teens (including myself when I was one) take offense at being called a child. In fairness, adolescence really is a step beyond childhood and some of the issues adolescents face are the very ones of adulthood. However, after teaching them for years, I look at very young children and notice identical behaviors in them and my teenagers that I just do not see in adults. The video of the four-year-old is surprisingly apt, in the past weeks (it’s almost the end of the school year here, approaching finals) I have dealt with an uncountable number of frustrated students whose problems were solved by me pointing to the top of an assignment, where a single sentence was written in bold, 6 times as large as the rest of the text. A short and clear sentence, which described the exact answer to the students’ question that had vexed them so thoroughly.

While adults sometimes have similar foibles, I am constantly reminded by my students’ actions that they are not adults. Still, by calling them “kids” I would be refusing to accept the progress they have made towards maturity. It really is a tricky situation, most of the nouns we might think of have one or more fatal flaws. (“Folks” is both informal and the name of a large gang alliance in the US, for example.)

In my case, I tend to avoid the collective nouns altogether. A lifetime of having associative prosopagnosia has engrained the habit of speaking to people without directly referring to them, and I say my good mornings and good afternoons without a “class”, “students”, or “everyone” attached. I’d love to hear a better idea though. Have one?

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Jay teaches English in Asia and loves skepticism and teaching above all else.


  1. December 15, 2016 at 2:12 pm —

    Myself, I always go with “folks.” I wasn’t aware of the gang association and I’m not sure that many Canadians are. Still, a Jewish friend of mine told me that “folks” reminds him of “Volk.” He tolerates it just fine, but he doesn’t like it. It really is a tricky problem!

    • December 18, 2016 at 6:43 am —

      I did like the word “folks” a lot, but it does have problems with association. It’s a shame that certain groups co-opt words and phrases which then become spoiled for everyone else.

    • December 18, 2016 at 9:18 pm —

      English has two awkward but valid plural second-person pronouns: youse, and y’all.

      • December 19, 2016 at 12:03 am —

        True, but those are only appropriate in some places.

    • December 25, 2016 at 7:28 pm —

      “Folks” drives me up a wall because of how it’s been co-opted by politicians as a substitution for “people” in pretty much all non-negative circumstances. They’re so trained to make the swap that I recall once seeing one accidentally use “folks” to refer to some kind of criminals (I forget now) and it caused a problem. [Edit: It was Obama saying “we tortured some folks” and “folks [who] mess with Americans”]

      It pretty much always reads to me as disingenuous glad-handing fakery.

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