Have you ever had your name mispronounced? Have you ever taught a group of students with names that were foreign to you? Have you ever had a student come up to you requesting you call them by a different name? Let’s explore the importance of using names and pick up tips to make all your learners feel valued in class.
A while ago, I was happily drinking my cup of tea in break time and enjoying the incoming sunlight through the windows when one of my learner-teachers approached me with some questions. After about 10 minutes our conversation came to an end, they got up and thanked me for my time saying, ‘Thank you, An’.
While they walked off, being totally unaware of what was going on in my head, I noticed that this short sentence had totally changed my mood. At that moment I felt like … well, that I was not seen or valued which brought back memories. Now, I’m convinced that this wasn’t their intention at all, and you might wonder ‘what a big deal, we all get names wrong now and then’. Very true. But names do matter. Let me share a short story.
It's just a name!
After many years of thinking about it, I finally officially changed my birth name. When the confirmation arrived, I felt of kind emotional. On the one hand, I felt like a traitor as I know my family wouldn’t have approved but on the other hand, I felt strangely liberated to finally be able to really be me. After all, Anna is the name I’ve been using for most of my life. My official birth name is unknown to most people dear to me, but those names were always there on official papers and on official occasions. And every time they were read out, I noticed how just hearing them had the power to drag me back to my past. Changing my name not only confirms to me how far I’ve come, emotionally, it also connects me to my true self and allows me to claim my identity.
More than just a label
Whereas the story above might be an unusual one, I hope it shows that names carry emotional value and are an important part of our identity. Whilst Collin’s online dictionary refers to the word name as ‘a label used to identify someone or something’ names are so more than that.
Just imagine you have a name you are proud of, but you hear it being mispronounced day in and day out. How would that make you feel? Does it show that others care about you or value you as a person? I’d argue not. Or imagine your teacher can’t remember your ‘unusual’ name and therefore takes the liberty to use a different name for you to make their life easier! You might be shocked, but sadly I’ve seen this happen and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
Yes, as educators we face challenges remembering and pronouncing names we might be unfamiliar with. Working as an international teacher and trainer I often end up working with colleagues, learner-teachers and students in highly multi-cultural environments. And some names, I must admit, I’ve simply never heard before! So yes, they might sound foreign to me but simply because I’ve not heard these names before doesn’t mean I can get them wrong repeatedly.
Why are names such a big deal?
Researching the importance of names, I discovered that using someone’s name correctly has a huge impact on our brains. When we hear our names, correctly used that is, our brain shows greater activation and engagement in the conversation or situation. One shocking fact I came across was that in the USA about 73% of people have their name regularly mispronounced! When asked about their feelings, they admitted being quietly upset about this since they are proud of their name and the link to their heritage. Because names often carry deep personal, cultural, and familial connections they form part of our identity.
When we educators make an effort to pronounce names correctly, yes even the more challenging ones, we show our learners that we care about them. The benefit of using names goes beyond making communication in our classrooms easier, it can help us make everyone feel included and feel a sense of belonging. And there are many other important reasons to think about remembering and pronouncing names correctly.
- Creating a Positive Learning Environment: A classroom where students and teachers use each other's names creates a positive and respectful atmosphere. It creates a sense of community and can contribute to a more supportive and collaborative learning environment.
- Building Relationships: Learning and teaching are social activities. Knowing and using students' names can help build positive rapport with our students. And when learners feel valued, they are more likely to engage in the learning process.
- Identity and Inclusivity: Using names correctly helps to establish a sense of belonging. When you address others by their correct name, you acknowledge their individuality and show respect for their unique identities.
- Cultural Sensitivity: Trying to get names right demonstrates respect for students' diverse backgrounds which is especially crucial in diverse learning contexts. Getting names right shows we value people’s cultural background and personal identity.
So how to get it right?
Mispronouncing or forgetting names can be painful and alienating. Getting learners’ names right makes them feel seen and valued, and shows they are respected in your learning and teaching context. All of these are essential ingredients for our well-being, so how can we get things right and show our learners we care?
- Listen actively when someone pronounces their name and ask them to repeat it if needed. Use a seating plan if that helps you memorise names by seeing them written down, and why not write names down in phonics as well, or how they sound to you? You can also use name cards or name tags.
- If you have forgotten how to pronounce a name correctly, ask the person to pronounce it and reteach you how to say their name correctly. Most learners, or people in general, will appreciate this effort. You could also use Padlet for a ‘get to know you’ activity, where everyone records a short introduction about themselves. This means you can listen and repeat as often as needed!
- Use learners’ names in the classroom when you ask questions or elicit ideas. Encourage learners to use each other’s names when they work together. This provides you with an extra opportunity to listen in and practise saying their names correctly. I also tell my learners to correct my pronunciation if needed, because I value them. (This also normalises mistakes. See welcoming mistakes for more information.)
- Finally, not all learners like to be called by the name you see on your register (and I speak out of experience here …). For some, their given names might cause undesired emotions. So, when you meet a new group of learners, why not ask them what they want to be called? Some might have a preferred nickname, others not.
Using names as others wish them to be used is an important step in building inclusive, respectful people-centred relationships. Names reflect what we believe about ourselves and who we are. I firmly believe that everyone should have the agency to tell you what they want to be called and correct us if we say their name wrong. No matter how hard it might be, a bit of practice and willingness to try can go a long way. I mean, have you ever wondered why most conversations with complete strangers start with the question: ‘Hello, what is your name?’ because names truly matter.
Carmody, D. P. & Lewis, M. (2006). ‘Brain activation when hearing one's own and others' names’. Brain Research 1116, 1: 153–158. Amsterdam: Elsevier, Science Direct.
Hasper, A. (2023). ‘Creating a culture of welcoming mistakes’. Modern English Teacher blog. Shoreham-by-Sea: Pavilion.
Race Equality Matters. ‘My name is …’ Race Equality Matters. London: Green Park.