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Classroom Stories: A Useful Reminder About Names at the Start of the School Year

Credit:Tony Tallec / Alamy Stock Photo

By Stacy Palen

Here in August, just as we are getting ready to go back to school, this Teen Vogue article that came across my desk was a useful reminder that people care deeply about their names.

I have a name that is not very hard to pronounce, but it is apparently easily confused with other names. For the longest time people would randomly call me “Tracy.” Then, in 2008, I started to get “Sarah” ALL. THE. TIME.

So I sympathize with my students and their genuine desire to be called by their actual names!

Before class begins every semester, I scroll through the list of students registered for the class and sound out any names that I’ve not seen before. Utah is particularly famous for unique spellings that take a moment to sound out like “Aunistee,” which is pronounced “Honesty.”

It has served me well to take a moment to look through these names ahead of time. In fact, I believe this is one of those “top ten” teaching tips on some website somewhere.

I am completely up front on the first day with my 120 introductory astronomy students that I will not know their names until about week three. After that, I will only know their name if they come to class all the time. They are generally surprised that I think that learning their names is an important thing to do at all.

In order to learn their names, every Friday, while they are working on their in-class activities, I hand back the past week’s activity by calling out their name and then handing the activity directly to the student. (This is arguably required by laws protecting student privacy. Students should not be able to see the scores of other students. There are other ways to handle that problem, but that’s a different blog post).

If I don’t know how to pronounce a student’s name, I will ask them to help me practice saying it. Then, I will make sure to practice it again after class. When I’m inputting grades on their written work, I’ll practice saying their name once more, alone in my office, until I’m pretty sure I’ve got it right.

Knowing your students’ names is a surprisingly simple and effective way to make your students feel like you see them and value their contribution to the class. It’s important to realize that you don’t have to be perfect. I find that if I know about a quarter of the names in the class, the students think I know them all. Then, when I call on a student whose name I know, I use their name every time.

Some names I never learn. At this point in my career it’s usually because I can’t remember if this guy is “Joe,” “John,” or “Jim.” I’ve seen those names attached to so many different people that it’s hard to keep track. I simply call on them with “Yes?” and a nod or tilt of my head.

I often get a comment in my evaluations like “I can’t believe she knew all of our names.” I was surprised the first time I saw that, but in retrospect, it makes sense to me. Students can feel lost in a large lecture classroom. Hearing their name out loud helps them find their place.


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