I have been thinking a lot about the upcoming school year. I know it seems early, considering the kind of year this last one was. It seems even earlier to me considering that I am still teaching summer school. But I recently had new student come into school, and I made a huge mistake, a mistake that created one of the biggest ‘ah-ha’ moments I have had in the past year.
This student was brought in because he had arrived at school but was not registered for summer school. He was brought to me to see if I knew him. Of course I didn’t. I’m not sure how it is in other districts, but this seems to be the norm with English learners, especially when we don’t have a translator available at the time. But this post isn’t about what systemically needs to change. This post is about what I messed up. I messed up when I started trying to look the student up. Instead of asking the student for his name, I asked the person who brought him to me. Of course this created confusion where we couldn’t find him in our system. Again, instead of asking him his name, I said are you (Insert Name Here)? Not only did I totally mess up his name (as I was working from the information given to me), he nodded and went along with it probably assuming that I was just another teacher who couldn’t get it right.
The whole situation didn’t sit well with me. But it did make me realize that many of us, including myself, have been starting our classes off on the wrong foot this entire time. Every year, without fail, we get a class of brand new students. Some of which we know, and some of which we don’t. Then it all begins. Without fail we say the same thing: “I’m going to call out your name. If I make a mistake or you have a nickname, feel free to correct me.” Maybe you say some translation of that. But without fail, I hear it and say it all the time. We think that we are doing the right thing by giving the students the power to correct us and teach us how to say their names. This is a seriously false pretense. For starters, it assumes that the students feel comfortable correcting us. I can’t tell you how many students I have that will smile and nod no matter how I pronounce their name. Secondly, it assumes our innocence and that the action of mispronouncing a name is innocuous. In reality, students are often embarrassed, hurt, ashamed, etc.
What if I told you there is a better way? What if I told you that this way stops you from publicly humiliating your students while also creating a more intimate and welcoming classroom environment? What if, instead of trying to read in the plethora of phonic/phonetic systems we have in this country and take your clipboard to each individual desk/seat/etc. and introduce yourself to each pupil one-on-one? Maybe say something like, “Good Morning, my name is King George IX. What’s your name?” Are you going to get it right on everyone’s name right away? Fuck no. But are you going to keep the embarrassment to a minimum and make a better connection with the student? Absolutely. At that distance you can also physically see the students’ mouths moving, which will help you pronounce their names. It also gives you the time to write out their names phonetically, to help you later on as you have cycled through 7 other classes worth of names before waking up and doing it again.
I can’t make any guarantees about this idea working out perfectly. But I can tell you that at the very least, I will not be gong back to the days of calling out student names incorrectly and hoping for the best.