By Ted Murcray
In my credential course, I demonstrate teaching techniques, both good and bad, to have students evaluate what I am doing and determine best practices for their future. This last semester, Summer 2021, I demonstrated a typical questioning strategy that does not work well and asked one of my students what I did incorrectly. She replied, “Besides saying my name wrong, I’m not sure what you did.” I paused for a second, and then I apologized and asked her to pronounce her name for me, so I could correct myself. She did, and I asked the question again.
As someone with a tricky last name, I am very sensitive to saying names correctly because I know how it feels to have my name mis-pronounced more often than not. It turns out, I am not alone. The question is, does pronouncing all these tricky names correctly really matter?
Do Names Matter to Students?
Laura Guertin wrote a powerful blog post about the need to pronounce student names correctly (Guertin, Geo Ed Trek, August 25, 2019). In this blog, she catalogs many of the journal articles, magazine articles, and blogs that have been written about the importance of calling students by their correct name and pronouncing their names correctly. According to this blog post, the “National Education Association reports that minimizing the significance of getting a name right is a kind of microaggression” (Guertin, Geo Ed Trek, August 25, 2019). This is important and powerful. Just the idea that we might be ok with pronouncing someone’s name incorrectly is seen as a microaggression, essentially diminishing the personhood of our students.
One article notes that mispronouncing student names can be linked to low achievement for some students (Classroom Biases Hinder Student Learning, Spark, 2015). Since the goal of each of our classes is to teach students new information, we want to proactively remove barriers to learning, and that includes learning student names.
Do Names Matter to God?
God called forth the “every animal of the field and every bird of the sky,” and then He brought those creatures to Adam to be named (Genesis 2:18-20). Naming the creatures of the earth gave them identity – something to be known by. . . something distinct from the others. It is by their names that they became known.
Additionally, God is concerned about His own name. What we call Him matters. We have often learned in Sunday School that the Jews had many names for God, which helped them reference His power and His work in their lives. They called him El Shaddai, Jehovah Jireh, and Yahweh to name just a few. The Blue Letter Bible web site provides a resource to learn more about the names of God and their particular meanings (The Names of God in the Old Testament).
What do We do next?
Personally, I am going to miss one aspect of Zoom classrooms. . .the name next to the face! It was so much easier to call students by the right name when I could easily see their name (notwithstanding the mispronunciations, as mentioned earlier).
With that missing, it might be time to bring back the Table Tents where students write their name on a folded piece of paper and put them on the desks in front of them. A 2017 study showed that using name tents increased the faculty members’ ability to remember student names and increased the feeling students had that they are known (Cooper, et. al., 2017). The study found that 78% of the students felt the instructors knew their names, but the instructors were only able to correctly identify 53% of the students. This demonstrates that using tools, such as Table Tents, and calling students by name as much as possible increases the feeling that a student has of being known by the instructor. That feeling is more important than the instructor actually knowing the name of the student. Keep that in mind if you teach large classes or if you struggle with name recall! You might not know all their names but calling on students by name as much as possible increases the sense that students have that they are known and that the instructor cares.
If you want a reference that you can use to help you remember their names, we have access to a great instructional technology tool called VoiceThread. One recommendation is to have students introduce themselves in a VoiceThread at the beginning of class. Because it is a video recording, you will be able to see their faces while hearing them names, which will help you with the association. As the instructor, you can review that thread periodically to review the names of the students, which will increase your recall when you see them in class.
If you want to add an additional personal touch, you can use an activity called “The Story of My Name.” Laura describes her experience with this activity at a professional development event.
The activity is called Story of my Name, and we were given the following prompt for our Zoom breakout room: share a one-minute story about your name (how you were named, what your name means, what it is like to have your name). Then, we discussed the benefits of centering identity in building community within our groups, and how might we use this activity in our own teaching. In my breakout room, none of us had ever recalled being specifically questioned on our names and the origin – all of the stories were reflective, personal, and for one participant – emotional. (Guertin, Geo Ed Trek, August 20, 2021).
I could see this activity being used effectively online or in-person. You might have students include the story of their name in the VoiceThread introduction, or you might choose to have students share in small groups.
Some instructors print out a roster of their students and write out a pronunciation guide next to names they have difficulty with. They keep those rosters with them when they enter class and refer to them often. This is a terrific way to support your students without having to spend time trying to memorize their names. If you are worried that your students will notice you referring to a list, you can stop worrying now. The study referenced above shows that students like to see instructors making an effort to know their names. Referring to the list shows your students that you care about them.
Whether you use these strategies or countless other, you have the ability to make a difference in the life of your students by learning to say their names correctly.
What about the Instructor?
All through my teaching career, students would say, “Your name is hard to pronounce. I’m just going to call you Mr. M.” My response was always the same: “I will commit to learning your name, and you will commit to learning mine”. I never had a student who could not say my name within a few weeks of class.
Our names matter. They were chosen for us by people we love. Some of us chose our own names. Regardless of how we were named, our names have meaning and are important to us. I encourage you to create a short introductory video for your students. In that video, be sure to say your name. If you are like me, you will have to pronounce your name very clearly to be sure students know how to say your name properly. Although I do not have evidence to support this, I have a feeling that students knowing your name makes them more likely to ask questions and participate in class. Perhaps that is a research topic for the future!