When I was in Jakarta at the British International School, the EAL department supported a group of Korean students to stage a protest. They made some placards and, during lesson time, they walked around one of the central areas chanting ‘Know My Name! Know My Name!’ It was a powerful moment for them -and for me.
It was partly a speaking activity – giving the students an authentic opportunity to have their voices heard – but it was also a genuine chant of protest and frustration. In that context, Korean students were offended by that fact that teachers all too often did not know their names or did not say them correctly. From an English language background names like Jung So Min or Kim Hyung Jun can be hard to learn; you don’t have reference points around gender or even knowing the forename, surname protocols. Faced with uncertainty, teachers would often avoid using student names in case they were wrong or they’d guess and cause offence – making a basic gender error, for example. We discussed this and resolved to do better.
In the UK, the same applies with teachers needing to engage with students from range of backgrounds different to their own where learning names might be more difficult – but actually the Know My Name mantra could apply to any student. It’s a pretty basic and reasonable entitlement to expect that our teachers know who we are and can say our names correctly. It seems so obvious but, in reality, it is still something we need to discuss and be explicit about. It matters a great deal to the students – the comforting sense of being known contrasts sharply with the opposite: my teacher doesn’t even know my name! I remember a boy called Mustafa who was always furious if you said MusTAfa; if was definitely MUStafa – and it mattered to him. I feel the same whenever I’m referred to as Tom Sherringham. That’s not my name!!! At KEGS, there were some long Sri Lankan-origin names that were hard to get right and could trip you up reading out certificates in assembly. Nothing worse than making someone’s friends laugh at the moment of trying to celebrate their achievements.
But knowing student names with confidence is also massively empowering to teachers. Once you know your students’ names it’s so much easier to engage them with questioning “Syrah…. let’s hear your idea, what do you think? Joe, Mustafa, what were you saying in your discussion?” I’ve found that not knowing names is a bit inhibitor when it comes to asking questions. And, of course it helps with behaviour management – once you know names, you avoid lumping people together. Instead of ‘Guys’ or ‘everyone’ or ‘back table’ – you get a much better response if you highlight that it’s specifically Stephania and Josef who need to give you their full attention.
As was outlined superbly by Peps Mccrae at the Durrington ResearchEd event last year, we are not experts in our classrooms until we know our students; we don’t know how to teach with optimum effect until we know what they know and how they will respond to feedback of different kinds. Building relationships underpins all good teaching – at an emotional and a technical level. Knowing names is the start of that process. When I was a Head of Year, every lunchtime I would go down the lunch queue testing myself on student names early in the term. I took the photos home and studied them, actively trying to learn names and then testing myself in practice the next day. As a teacher, I’ve always made a seating plan for the sole purpose of learning names, trying to wean myself off referring to it as soon as possible. It’s so important. (I’ve also done the same with staff in any new job. It’s horrible for all concerned when, in staff briefing for example, you want to invite someone to give a message but you can’t remember their name.)
Whenever I haven’t invested time in learning names I’ve always felt disempowered – as well as knowing I was giving my students (or staff) a sense of being remote from them. You always get to know the students who excel or who cause lots of problems with behaviour so it’s the middle ground students where you need to invest time. I would advise that teachers take plenty of time to explore student names, getting pronunciations right, learning surnames as well as first names and discussing uncertainties with the students until you get then right. It’s always time well spent.