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What's in a name?

As the school year starts, I had a wonderful reminder on Twitter from a newfound friend about the importance of names. It can be really hard with student names these days. Beyond the many languages represented and cultural influences that might make a student’s name difficult to pronounce, parents have also decided to start spelling even the most common names with very unique spellings. What a challenge for classroom teachers, let alone school principals with hundreds of student names to learn.

Here’s why we should spend our valuable time making sure we accept that challenge and use it as an opportunity.

Many of us have discovered the power of relationships. Whether that’s between teacher and student, principal and teacher, or even principal and student, relationships make a huge difference for student outcomes. We know that relationships are foundational to collective teacher efficacy (one of the most influential factors on student achievement (Donohoo, 2017; DeWitt, 2019)) and that relational trust between parents, teachers, and students is one of the few factors that has been empirically shown to close gaps. (Hoy, 2012) Neither trust nor relationships happen if we aren’t willing to take the time to pronounce a students’ name correctly.

Perhaps you are focused on creating a strong culture--also critical for student outcomes. That culture is dependent on students feeling like they belong in their classroom and in their school. How can you belong somewhere where they don’t even know your name? For a great read on the power and importance of belonging, see Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown.

If you’re not convinced yet, consider this: you may be the first teacher or administrator to even try to pronounce that student’s name correctly. I’ve heard many stories of students adopting Anglicized nicknames just to stop dealing with this issue. What better way to show students that they belong and that we care about them? What an amazing jump start to a strong relationship!

The bottom line is that we get to know the people we care about and, perhaps more than at any other time, students need to know that we truly and deeply care about them.

What to do?

  • Ask students to pronounce their name for you. Say it back to them. Tell them you’re committed to saying it correctly.

  • If you’re a visual learner, take the time to write their name with the phonetic spelling next to it.

  • As a school leader, make sure everyone on your staff who makes school-wide announcements understands the importance of this idea. Help them to have a structure or strategy to ensure all students feel like they belong.

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