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Get Names Right—Right from the Start. It's Worth it

When I first started teaching 20 years, I would clumsily call the register, apologising for mispronunciations and promising I’d get it right. As a new teacher, I underestimated the importance of memorising names immediately and miscalculated how much names contribute to a positive classroom climate. Taking the time to learn and use a student’s name properly is our first opportunity (outside of a smile) to connect with young people and create a sense of belonging.

Mispronouncing a student’s name, which may seem innocuous and be unintentional, is a common microaggression. The teacher who mispronounces a student’s name may laugh due to embarrassment or say “Sorry, I’m so bad with names,” but this is still harmful. Worse yet, the teacher may say, “Your name is hard to pronounce” which sends the message, that the child is “outside” of what is considered the norm in the classroom.

Furthermore, saying a name is ‘difficult’ to pronounce means that it is culturally difficult. In a qualitative study of students from diverse backgrounds this behaviour affected both the child’s perception of self and of their culture and worldview. (Kohli, R. & Solórzano, D., 2012)

As an icebreaker on the first day one year, I asked students to write to me about their names. Having a story to attach to a name and face not only helped me memorise the names, it also taught me about their culture, family and our identity. Since then, I’ve been collecting good ideas. Here are a few:

At the start of the year:

Before you meet your students, review all of the names in your class. For primary, this goes without saying, but at secondary, where you have several classes with different students this may seen onerous. The effort will pay off. Highlight any student names you are unsure of and check with colleagues who may already know the student.

  • Hello my name is . . . Instruct students to say their name before speaking when called on. (This is important for both teachers and students to learn the names.)

  • When a student tells you their name, say it back to them as much as possible (after confirming that your pronunciation is correct.)

  • Have a class list with photos. Cut the photos into strips and reassemble so that there is more room under to take notes. Place close to desk and quiz yourself.

  • Identify a unique physical feature and then think of a memorable sentence or rhyme involving that feature and the student’s name.

Activities for the whole class:

  • Name tents: Have students create name tents on folded card or paper, writing their name on both sides. Use the name tents for the first week or two until not only you, but the student also, know every name. Play Name Tent Toss by collecting all of the tents (or if room asking students to toss them into the centre or a bag) and asking two volunteers to return all of the names. Make it into a game by timing students. Save the Name Tents to use for guest speakers, cover (substitute) teachers or if a new student joins the class.

  • The Story of your Name: Start by sharing the origins of your name and an anecdote that reveals some aspect of your personality or connects to your youth. Students then brainstorm all the things they know about their names, including stories related to their name and/or feeling associated with their name. They pick one aspect and write about it in brief. They share the story or a few lines from the their writing with the class. You may also wish to ask students to interview their parents about their names or research the meaning of their names.

  • Party Trick: Show students the BBC video Never Forget a Face to help them memorise names. When you hear someone’s name, translate that name into an image, repeat the name as much as possible during the conversation and then link the image to the person’s face. Then have the students Mix and Mingle and introduce themselves, sharing how they how they will remember other’s names. (A version of this strategy is described on the Teachertoolkit website.)

  • Name and Motion: Ask the students to think of a simple motion that describes something they like to do. For younger students, ask them to first think of something they like or like to do. Brainstorm some examples, such as cooking, sport or even listening to music.

Then ask them to think of a motion or gesture the represents the thing they like. In this game, each person will be asked to say their name, and say the thing they like to do while making a motion related to that hobby or activity. . . . .

Explain that each student will repeat the previous three student’s names and motions before stating their own name, hobby and making the related motion. If you are limited by space, students can stay at their desks and use their arms and head and torso. The movements can be very simple. The teacher should model this with his own name to start. (A quick google search for ‘name and motion’ will give you lots of options to see what this looks like from different ages.)

Keep it going

  • Meet and greet: Stand at the door and welcome students by name and with a smile, handshake or nod.

  • Put student names into content-related handouts, such as maths word problems or Do-nows

  • Take photos of students in action and write names underneath them posting them on the walls or projecting them in the classroom as a weekly slideshow

  • Encourage accountable Student Talk:

  • “I agree with (peer’s name) because...”.

  • Students should avoid using “he” or ”she” instead of referring to specific names when referencing to classmates.

Keep in mind:

  • It’s important for students to say their own names first so you and the class hear the correct pronunciation and their prefered name which might be different than the name given on the officially attendance list.

  • It’s important to press peers to pronounce names correctly, no matter how many times it takes. Also avoid using expressions like, “This is a hard name to pronounce.”

  • For teachers, avoid abbreviating your own names (e.g. Mr. P) to make it easier for children to pronounce. This can create a climate where some names are seen as difficult or alien. Instead encourage students to practise correctly pronouncing your name, acknowledging that we are all capable of pronouncing each others’ names. It’s a sign of respect.

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