5 Do’s and 3 Don’t’s When It Comes to Names

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Soon Labor Day will culturally signify the end of the long, hot, lazy days of summer and give way to pumpkin spice and scarecrows.  Once upon a time, Labor Day also signified the last days of summer vacation for our kids.  Now, depending upon where you work, the year might have already started, or you may be busily getting ready for the new year, but regardless, it’s a fascinating time of year.  There’s the excitement in the air … the prospect of new faces, new possibilities, new minds to mold.  You may have all sorts of ideas as to what you want to accomplish this year.  Or perhaps, since we are still in a global pandemic, you are just hoping that we can have a better, less Covid-filled year than last.

Wherever you are on the spectrum of excitement, one thing’s for sure.  Your students have the same mix of trepidation and excitement that their teachers have.  They wonder, will my teacher be mean or nice?  Hard or easy?  Students who are new to the school may wonder if their peers will like them.  And for some students, the question may be, “How badly will my teacher butcher my name?”

That was my question every year, and a question many like me continue to ask themselves.  How badly will my teacher butcher my name?  Will my teacher then make fun of my name?  Will my teacher even try to say it? Will the other kids laugh?  These are real questions that fill students whose names are not mainstream with dread as the new year approaches.  

I am sure you have heard this (especially if you have been following my blog), but names are an important part of one’s identity.  Names can signify a person’s cultural and historical background.  Names give a person history, a sense of belonging.  They might have belonged/belong to a treasured family member.  Parents spend days if not months picking out their children’s names.  Hence, names are the first gift parents give to their children, and those very names signify the love parents have for their children.  Furthermore, names are the first words children respond to.  In fact, names are so important that Dale Carnegie, corporate trainer and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, stated, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” 

By refusing to pronounce a student’s name correctly, students develop a dislike… an aversion of what should be a sweet and important sound to them.  Because names are a part of a student’s identity, this means that when students dislike their names, they begin to dislike themselves.

And just as importantly, to the rest of the class, when we do not make the effort to pronounce students’ names correctly, we send a message that it’s okay to other people based on their names.  For instance, studies have shown that hiring authorities will be more likely to interview the same candidate who has nicknamed themselves on their resumes, thereby hiding their cultural identities, than candidates who use their culturally-identifying names. As teachers, don’t we want to prepare the next generation to be better than this?

Here are a few do’s and don’t’s when it comes to your students’ names to keep in mind as we begin the new school year.

5 Do’s When It Comes to Names:

  1. Do ask students to say their names and then, repeat what they say.  It might scare you to repeat students’ names.  After all, you do not want to make a mistake, but mistakes are okay.  If you make a mistake, apologize, try again, and commit to practicing… really commit.  This should not be a case of best intentions.  And whatever you do, when you err, avoid laughing.  You may be laughing out of nervousness, or you may be laughing at yourself, but your students may think that you are laughing at them. 
  2. Do ask students how their caregivers pronounce their names.  Students may already be accustomed to Anglicizing their own names after years (or even a few months) of people butchering their names. By finding out how caregivers pronounce a student’s name, you can find out the real pronunciation.
  3. Do be patient with yourself.  Being unable to pronounce a name is not racist, however not trying and not listening to corrections are unacceptable.  Most students will be appreciative of real effort on your part.  And fortunately, our brains are plastic.  If you keep trying, you will get it.
  4. That said, do make sure you are not making it harder than it is.  Sometimes, in all aspects of life, we can make things harder than they really are.  My daughter has an Indian name which happens to also be a common western name, yet many educators have struggled with it.  Ask yourself if you are struggling because the sounds are new and you need to learn them or because you are just expecting it to be hard since the student is not white.
  5. Do praise your student’s name.  Let your student know how special their name is.  Learn what it means.  (If your student does not know, Google it.)  The student is likely flooded with messages that demean their name.  You may be that one voice that makes them feel that their identity matters.

3 Don’t’s When It Comes to Names

  1. Do not make fun of your student’s name.  I feel almost ridiculous writing this as I sincerely doubt most teachers would ever do this, but yes, this is a very real albeit, I hope, rare occurrence.  I won’t say anything more.
  2. Do not offer your student a nickname.  Unless you gave birth to the child, you should not be offering to nickname somebody else’s offspring.  Self demeaning statements like, “We need a nickname for us stupid Americans,” doesn’t give you a right to nickname someone else’s child either.  In fact, such statements make things worse because now you are claiming that the student is not American, which is indeed a microaggression.
  3. Do not avoid your student’s name.  Yes, you don’t want to make a mistake and mess up your student’s name.  But we all know that kids are smart.  They will know when you are avoiding their name and the effect becomes the same.  We are communicating that their names are not special enough to be part of our dialogue unlike little Suzy’s or little Michael’s names.

So this year, among your many New Year’s resolutions for the new school year, let’s resolve to pronounce our students’ names correctly and ensure that this is one resolution that we will always keep.

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