What’s in a name? For our students, it can be everything.

by | 09.13.20

“What’s in a name? Well, everything.”

One of the first lessons I teach when I meet a new group of students focuses on our names. It sets the tone for everything that follows – by saying we value one another, who we are and the experiences that shape us.

Names are identities. And they’re stories of where we come from, stories that acknowledge the people who named us. There’s honor in pronouncing one another’s names correctly. There’s power in having someone get your name right.

Learning the names of a new group of students sounds simple, but so often, if we don’t do some intentional work to get this right, we can make mistakes that have lasting consequences. For example, I found out that our staff and students had been calling one of my colleagues, who is from Iraq, by the wrong name – for years. We had been using a “nickname,” and she didn’t correct us, because she said her real name was “too hard to pronounce.” When I found out, I felt awful that we hadn’t shown her the respect of learning how to say her name correctly, and we talked about how to change that moving forward. 

I’ve sometimes encountered educators who believe the burden should fall on students to correct teachers when we get their names wrong. But if my colleagues and I have struggled with this, as adults, think how much harder it is for students to correct each other and their teachers when we fail to get their names right! It’s our responsibility to ask – and to model that learning for our students. 

Our students are coming from a space where being “wrong” is bad. If they get a question “wrong” on a test, for example, that’s always a bad thing. So to admit making a mistake is hard for them, as it’s hard for all of us – and that type of admission is the only way we can make things right when we realize we’ve made incorrect assumptions about names. I work hard to make sure that I can acknowledge my own mistakes in front of my students. When I make a mistake, I announce, “I made a mistake, but that’s OK. Tell me I’m still cool!” And they all call back, “You’re so cool!” It’s just our way of learning to understand the importance of making mistakes as a way to grow – and I hope this can shape the ways they think about mistakes in the future.

I’ve been so impressed to see my students draw upon these learnings by helping the other adults in the school to properly pronounce their names and their classmates’ names. I’ve seen my kids speak up for each other when a teacher gets their name wrong.

Last school year, when we started the year by sharing the stories behind our names, I was profoundly moved when a student shared her “real name” with her peers for the first time. She’d spent more than half her life referred to by a name that wasn’t hers, because of an error in the way her name appeared in her school record. She shared the meaning of her name, and our class was able to honor who she is. It was another powerful reminder: Giving students a chance to introduce their name and pronounce their name is an essential priority in building our classroom community. 

When we shared the correct pronunciation of this students’ name with more teachers at the school, so many asked, “How did you figure this out?” It wasn’t this big investigation, I told them. We can honor students’ names when we ask. 

How can we show that we value students’ names?

In case you’re interested in revisiting the ways you learn students’ names, I want to share our process. My students and I start by reading Teach Us Your Name. Then, we take time to prepare what we’d like to share. 

As teachers, we can start by sharing our own stories. What do we know about how our families named us? In a distance learning environment, I might invite younger students to make a video of the pronunciation of their names using Flipgrid. Older students might be able to create a Google slide with their names, and add pronunciation as an embedded audio or video file. 

The exact format isn’t as important as the message that we can send by dedicating time to this at the beginning of the year. Let’s show our students that they are important to us by learning who they are.

About the Author

Jami Witherell
Jami Witherell

Jami Witherell is a teacher in Massachusetts. Follow her on Twitter @ms_witherell.

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