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Tuesday, October 30, 2018

5 Tips for Learning Student Names (and why it matters)

As I continue to think about ways to better reflect, respect, and respond to marginalized people and perspectives in music class, I wanted to remind us all of the importance of remembering to treat each child as an individual. That can be particularly challenging when you teach hundreds of students! One of the most important things we can do as music teachers to help our students feel respected and recognized is to know their names, and know them well. Today I want to share some of my tips for learning student names to help you with this important but difficult task!

But first: why even bother? With so many students to teach and so little class time with each one, is it really that critical for us to learn them all? The obvious answer is yes, it absolutely is. Sometimes it can get pushed aside with all the other tasks we have in front of us, and as soon as a new class walks in it's easy to forget the one that just left your room, but it absolutely is important to know each child's name and know it well. Teaching is a people business, not a topic business. We're here to grow humans, not convey musical concepts (although that certainly aids tremendously in the cultivating of little hearts, minds, souls, and bodies!). You might be able to get away with "sweetie" or "friend" for a little while, but children know when adults truly see them for who they are and treat them as an important individual worthy of their time and care. 

So let's get into it, shall we?

1. Put away the class lists

I know this sounds counter-intuitive I do not find the class lists from the office helpful for learning names at all. I do look at them to get an idea of how many students are in each class, and maybe see how many new students there are or note other general information, but once I get a sense of the general makeup of each class I put those lists away. I find if I look at the names in writing too much before I have a chance to meet the person and hear them say their own name, I tend to have a harder time pronouncing unfamiliar names correctly and it can actually take me longer to attach the name to the person. 

Instead, I learn new names by looking each one in the eye and asking them to tell me their name. Then I say it back to them a few times and ask them to correct me if I mispronounce it, then I will have them spell it for me so I can write it down on my seating chart. Sound before sight, right?

2. Listen carefully to the student

It's important to point out specifically the importance of having the students themselves tell me their names. Often when a new student moves into the school mid-year, the homeroom teacher will introduce them to me before their first class (which is awesome and so helpful!). I make sure I do not rely on anyone else's pronunciation of their name, but ask the student to say it themselves and pay close attention to how they pronounce it. 

And yes, how you pronounce the names does matter! This is one way that white privilege often rears its head in US American schools- teachers don't believe they can learn to pronounce unfamiliar names so they just don't even bother. I believe that is a tremendously disrespectful thing to do. Every time you say their name, the student will be reminded of how little you care for them, their background, and their family. The first tip of listening before looking at the name will help a lot with names containing unfamiliar sounds, and there's nothing wrong with trying over and over again to get it right and asking for help when you just aren't getting it. 

3. Use your seating chart

The only way to ever learn hundreds of names is to practice using them. Especially when I'm learning an entire new building's worth of names, I carry my seating chart with me at all times while I'm teaching and make a point of saying individual names as much as possible. I look over the seating chart as each class is walking in, but if I can't remember a name when I look at a student, I look down at the chart. Obviously this means I think assigned seating is a must, especially in the beginning! 

4. Take every opportunity to practice

I find the best way to get in practice time with all those names is actually outside of class. If I can remember their name when they're not sitting in their assigned seat, I must know it pretty well! I try to make a point of saying individual names as I greet students everywhere I go- in the hallway, in the cafeteria, or outside of school. If I can't remember, I just ask. Students understand and they appreciate the effort!

5. Study with photos

If all else fails, study those names like you're studying for a test! I get photos of the students (usually the homeroom teacher already has some from the first day of school, but if not I take my own) and write their names right next to their face and quiz myself over and over (hint: faculty meetings are a great time to work on this!). It's work but remember, it's so important!

What are your favorite tips for learning student names? You can read more of my suggestions for fostering relationships with students as an elementary specialist teacher in this post:

And be sure to catch up on all of the other posts on the topic of respecting, reflecting, and responding to students from all backgrounds right here:

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