The first week or so of meeting a new group of students is important for creating not only great first impressions, but also for creating long lasting relationships. If you get the first few weeks right, the rest of your time spent with students will be easier, the relationships will be richer, and the depth of student response in your classes will be greater than you ever expected.
I let students know that it is crucial for teachers to learn names and that I am going to learn all of their names as soon as possible. This is so important to me that remembering names has become part of my identity. I identify as a teacher who goes the extra mile to learn names and here’s my first tip – negative self-talk, saying “I’m so bad at learning names”, only serves to reinforce an identity that works against you.
Any time you have a behavior that reinforces your story, it becomes a vote that is cast onto that pile and you start to latch on to it. It’s interesting, the more I hear these identity narratives, a lot of the time people don’t even notice they’re doing it. It’s so internalized that they don’t think it’s a choice anymore.
So, presuming that you want to learn your student names, here are the techniques that work for me, followed by those that work for teachers in my PLN.
On day 1, typically a shortened day, I greet my students and read through the names on my roster. I acknowledge that I am likely to mispronounce a few names but they are to correct me so that I get it right. This is also the time where students let me know their ‘called’ name as opposed to the one on official documentation. John’s tend to be Jack’s and both of my Roxanne’s this year go by names that sound the same but spelled differently – Roxy and Roxie. This initial writing down of preferred names let’s students know that I am serious about learning names.
I also teach students my name, how to pronounce it – rhymes with kiln, the ‘e’ is silent. It’s of Scottish origin, my family originate from Aberdeen. As I’m learning about my students, they are learning about me.
By humbling yourself in this way, you let them see that you’re human. You’re modeling what it looks like to be a lifelong learner, a flexible, confident person who is not afraid to admit a mistake. Regardless of the outcome, a genuine effort on your part will mean so much, and when the big day comes, they might even root for you to get it right.
Once I’ve given students the basics of my curriculum and talked about the logistics of the course I take them to an open space within the building and get in a large circle. I acknowledge that they are probably doing name games in every class right now but remind them of the power of learning names – not just me learning names, but them learning each others also. My go-to name game is starts with me saying my name and then the person next to me repeats my name and adds their own. This continues until we have gone around the circle and repeated all 25/30 names. I finish by repeating all of the names and ask if any students is brave enough to do the same. Throughout this activity, if a student can’t remember a name they are encouraged to ask. If students can’t ask each other “what’s your name?”, how are they expected to ask their peers more personal, and perhaps difficult questions? Our #HealthEd class talks about relationships, including sexual relationships. If you can’t ask someone their name, how are you ever going to ask someone on a date, or their sexual history, or whether you think you should both get tested for STI’s??
At this point I ask students to switch places in the circle before asking them how many of the student names they can remember now. If I have time I move on to this AWESOME name game that foreshadows our lessons on consent. Teaching consent in a name game? Absolutely!
Finally we head back in to the classroom where I attempt to name every student before they are dismissed and then I stand outside of the classroom repeating as many names as possible as they leave.
I repeat this for each of my classes and so by the end of the day my head is full of names…but some are starting to stick. The following day, I attempt to repeat the names again before the start of that lesson, and again, dismiss the class at the end by name. As students participate in that lesson I call upon them by name, all the time reinforcing the name.
As I type this, I have seen my students perhaps seven times, and I am confident that I know 99.9% of their names. Additionally, they too know many of their peers names and this explains high level of student-to-student interaction in each of my classes. It’s important that my students know that we are all in this together. We are all learners in the room, including me, and feeling connected as a group is a very powerful thing.
As the semester continues and my students write responses to my open-ended questions, they reveal much about their lives, their relationships and their behaviors. Having a connection, knowing that our class is a safe space and understanding that I encourage vulnerability allows many of my students to write the most amazing responses. They are, of course, reminded that I am a mandated reporter and I have had to follow up on some student writing, which is one reason why I try and read student work as soon as possible.
For an additional challenge I encourage my students to stop me in the hallway and ask “What’s my name?”. And they can do this at any time, until they graduate!
These strategies are sufficient for me to learn names, and they work for me in my setting, but other other strategies that you could employ to help with remembering names include:
- Using student photos.
- Name tents on student desks.
- Name tags (our teachers and students wear these for the first three days of the school year).
Members of my PLN suggested strategies that work for them in this twitter thread:
One resource you might also like to read is Learning Student Names by Joan Middendorf and Elizabeth Osborn.
I quoted James Clear above, His book Atomic Habits is awesome and was a previous #slowchathealth Book of the Month. Clear has spent years honing the art and studying the science of habits, and has created THE guide you need to break bad routines and make good ones…including learning student names.
Of course, I can’t mention the title of this week’s blog post without thinking of this track (which is older than my sophomores!):