With all else that plagues us as we begin the third school year impacted by Covid-19, it can be easy to forget that at the start of every school year, our focus should be on building relationships with our students. One of the greatest ways to build those relationships with students is by quickly learning and frequently using students’ names. And of course, when doing so, it is important to pronounce students’ names correctly.
I remember every year as a kid how at the beginning of every school year, I dreaded hearing yet another mispronunciation of my name, and once I grew older and had multiple teachers, I dreaded hearing several mispronunciations of my name.
And of course, I hated the questions and/or statements that followed:
Ignorant Questions and Statements Regarding My Name
1. Can I call you Ara until I learn to say your name right?
That question came from my Kindergarten teacher. What’s a 5-year-old to say? I agreed, but only because there was a power differential, and I was innocent enough to believe that while my teacher was calling me the nickname she created that she was actually spending her evenings practicing my name. Surprise ending? She never learned to say my name right. I learned my lesson and never again gave my teachers permission to call me anything than, albeit a mispronounced version, of the four syllables in my name.
Before you suggest a nickname, remember that there is a power differential between you and your student. Your student is likely to agree, not because they like that nickname that you invented but because they don’t know what else to do.
2. Don’t you have a nickname?
I still get this. No, if I had a nickname, I would have told you my nickname. Some people have even tried to convince me that having a long name requires me to have a nickname. No, it doesn’t. But you saying that makes you sound racist. And adding something ostensibly self-deprecating like, “Don’t you have a nickname for us dumb Americans?” doesn’t make it any better. In fact, that statement suggests that my name makes me un-American in spite of me having been born and raised in the United States. News flash. It doesn’t. I’m just as American as people with Anglo names.
3. I can’t say that.
Yes, you can. Listen to the sounds carefully when I say my name. Even today, as long as you are legitimately trying, I’m pretty happy. I felt the same way when I was a child.
4. Making fun of the name.
Okay, so this isn’t an actual statement, and to be fair, this only happened once with a substitute teacher, but the impact on this preteen was great. He’s the only substitute teacher I actually remember from my childhood, and not for any good reason. In fact, I can’t remember the name of the science teacher for whom he was substituting, but I clearly remember his. And thinking about him today, I still find myself getting angry. My 11-year-old self still hasn’t forgiven him.
Why Names Are Important
One’s name represents one’s identity and one’s culture and not calling students by their name disrespects both. It also disrespects the students’ parents who just like White parents, likely have spent time combing through names to make one of the first and most important decisions of their children’s lives. In my own case, Aradhana means “a worship service,” or “prayer.” My mother is deeply religious and giving me my name was her own prayer that I would forever have God in my life. It’s a lovely name that my mother took time to choose, but I came to hate it because nobody said it right.
Psychologists say that one’s own name is the sweetest sound one will ever hear. I didn’t have that experience growing up because I never heard my name. Today, as I, a full grown adult have insisted more and more on people saying my name correctly, and I am beginning to realize that this fact is true. I feel happy when I hear people say my name correctly. It really is the sweetest sounding word for me.
3 Tips to Correctly Pronounce Your Students’ Names
If you teach students who have names from origins that you are less familiar with (a common occurrence in Dual Language Programing), here are a few tips to say their names correctly:
- Ask kids how their caretakers say their name.
I eventually Anglicized the pronunciation of my name as a compromise, and that’s the name I would give everyone. This wasn’t because I liked the new version I had invented but because I was tired of the common reactions to my name. Your students may do the same, but let them know that their names are important to you, and ask how their parents or guardians say their names. This will help you learn the real pronunciation.
2. Listen carefully.
Our brains do tend to prune sounds that we don’t hear in our native languages, but our brains are also plastic, and you can train them to hear new sounds. So listen carefully. Ask students to repeat. As long as you let them know how important their names are to you, they won’t mind providing you that support.
3. Practice. Practice. Practice.
As long as you are genuinely practicing and getting feedback from your students, they will have the patience to wait as you keep trying. But don’t just tell them that you are practicing and not do so. Kids can spot a phony a mile away.
I’m sure that if you are taking the time to read this blog, you would not be like Mr. Sizemore, who made fun of my name in the 6th grade. (See? I told you that I still remember his name.) But it’s always worth mentioning how not funny it is to mispronounce a child’s name.
Good luck with the new school year! Stay safe! And don’t forget to pronounce your students’ names correctly. Names matter.
How do you ensure that you say names you are unfamiliar with correctly? Was your name unfamiliar for your teachers when you were growing up? If so, what were your experiences? Please comment below.