The first weeks of a new year are filled with organizing procedures, creating routines, and communicating expectations. There is much to do to launch a new year. However, there is one task that we can ill afford to ignore: learning student names.
We may not give it much thought, but names matter. The relatively simple task of respecting, learning, and pronouncing names correctly can be a big deal. Names are also an important aspect of our identities. Consider the message of the popular Johnny Cash song from a few decades ago: A Boy Named Sue.
When we fail to learn student names early in the year or ever, we risk sending a message that we do not care enough to make the effort or that our students do not count enough to be recognized as individuals. It is not surprising in these circumstances that many students will choose not to invest in their learning or respond to our instruction. Why should they care about what we offer and expect if they believe that we do not care enough to know their names?
If we fail to pronounce students’ names correctly, we risk sending a similar message. When these students come from different cultures and have names unfamiliar in the English language, we risk communicating that we also do not respect their culture and identity. If these students are also still learning English, we can create even greater feelings of separation and further complicate our relationship. As a result, we can make reaching them even more difficult.
Yet another element deserving our attention is assigning nicknames to students based on some aspect of their name, especially when the nickname may be perceived as less than positive and respectful. We may intend the practice to be playful, and even endearing, but we are assigning an identity to students based on our perceptions and preferences, not their choosing, and potentially without their permission. Like many other aspects of humor, we must be careful to avoid having what is intended to be funny result in emotional pain.
Even worse is the practice of intentionally mispronouncing student names or assigning negative nicknames to intimidate or denigrate students who are different, misbehave, or demonstrate a negative attitude. This behavior is especially egregious as it often masquerades as humor that is well-intended, but misinterpreted.
Unlike many conditions that can interfere with student learning, there are specific and relatively simple steps we can take to avoid having our treatment of student names become a barrier to relationships and compromise our influence on student success.
First, we can make learning student names a priority during the first weeks of the year and when new students enter our class or learning environment. By focusing on names, using them frequently, and reviewing them often, we can accomplish this task.
Second, if pronouncing some students’ names is challenging, we can ask them to pronounce their names for us and make phonetic notations to help pronounce them correctly. Collecting this information in private is usually best. Of course, practicing saying names can solidify and help to store them in our memory. If necessary, we can utilize online language resources or consult language experts to assist our efforts.
Third, we need to be careful to avoid assigning or using nicknames unless we have specific permission or students request that we use their nicknames. As noted earlier, the close connection between names and identity makes modifying or substituting student names an unnecessary risk to our relationships and ability to reach and teach students.
Learning and respecting names might seem like a small thing. Yet, our attention to and treatment of this aspect of student identities conveys a message about who we are and our commitment to supporting them as they learn.