What’s in a Name?

As an educator, administrator, teacher educator, and adjunct professor, I work with thousands of students every year. Out of those students, there are several hundred whom I see regularly and whose names I (should) know very quickly. Many teachers can relate to this necessary aspect of their professional lives – over the course of a year many teachers need to learn more than one hundred names. Learning students’ names is one of those critical aspects of teaching that never makes it into the syllabus of an education course and rarely gets mentioned when discussing the profession.

I’m a bit embarrassed to say that I’ve never been good at remembering names. Even before I became an educator, remembering scores of names was always a bit challenging for me. Suffice it to say, every year when I meet hundreds of new students, the difficulty still persists.

Though it is an ongoing challenge for me to remember names, knowing that names are a significant part of someone’s identity, I know it is especially important to respect each student’s name and pronounce it in the way it was intended.

For many teachers, reading students’ names on the first day of class is not something they pay particular attention to and, in many situations, is not something one can get through easily without error. If you’re fortunate enough to have students from various cultures and backgrounds, distinctions and nuances in spelling and pronunciation will be prolific. And spending significant time on taking attendance may not be a priority for teachers; but how a teacher addresses a student could set the stage for their interactions within their classroom community from that moment forward. When I hear teachers call students by nicknames, abbreviated names, initials, and “Americanized” names that may be easier for them to pronounce, I always wince a little. Though I don’t believe most teachers intend for these subtle changes to affect a student’s identity, it can. An individual’s identity is not only defined by the individual but is significantly influenced by the community within which it is constructed; as such, changing someone’s name or its pronunciation can directly or indirectly affect their image of self, dishonor their culture, and abate their connection to their heritage.

But making a little pronunciation mistake isn’t a big deal, right? Well, it could be. I know a man who, when he first went to school, his kindergarten teacher called him “Michael” although his name is Mikael (pronounced /miˈkel/). His teacher politely commented that his parents misspelled Michael and, therefore, called him Michael ever since. Needless to say, all of his classmates followed suit. Every year thereafter, when he tried to tell his teachers how to pronounce his name, they would be dismissive of his “different” pronunciation and would continue to call him Michael, without regard for his actual name or its pronunciation. Eventually, it because easier for him to “allow” them to call him Michael. He avoided subsequent questions and the subtle disregard for his assertion. However, his parents did not name him Michael, and Mikael has special meaning to them. It is connected to their culture and heritage. Eventually, he resigned to being Michael in school, and Mikael at home. It wasn’t until he was an adult when he began to inform people of his name’s correct pronunciation as this is an important part of his identity, his cultural connection, and familial pride.

There are other times, particularly within cultural and historical contexts, when someone’s name can have more significance than we realize.

For instance, in 1934, a reverend named Michael King, Sr. had a life-changing experience and, as a result, decided to make a significant change to his identity; he officially changed his name from Michael to Martin Luther. Since his oldest son shared his name, he also decided to change the name of his 5-year-old son from Michael to Martin Luther. This name change was one of the most significant events for Martin Luther King, Jr. as it exemplified the great expectations for his life through religious and racial traditions. Consequently, every time we mention Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s name as we acknowledge his profound impact on American history, we also commemorate the identity, legacy, and purpose associated with his name, his father’s, and those before him.

As an educator and teacher educator who is passionate about equity, agency, and diversity, I highly value one’s name as an integral part of their identity. Engendering educational environments where students can acknowledge and appreciate the uniqueness of their identities empowers students to actively engage within their diverse, dynamic classrooms and school communities. As such, although the first day of class can be a bit challenging when I’m reading names I may mispronounce, I intentionally ask students for clarification with pronouncing their names. It is a part of their identity, culture, and heritage — all of which should be highly valued in every educational setting.

(For a list of referenced sources, click here.)

Dr. Natasha Murray was a New York State Teacher of the Year finalist in 2017 and is a proud member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). As an educator, teacher educator, administrator, adjunct professor, researcher, professional developer, and consultant, she has served within the field of education in myriad capacities including Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International’s Board of Directors; NYS Master Teacher Professional Learning Team Facilitator; State University of New York at Old Westbury’s School of Education Advisory Board; New York State Association of Mathematics Supervisors (NYSAMS) Executive Board; Penn Literacy Network (PLN) faculty; and Editorial Panel Chair of Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, a teacher journal published by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM); and as a Fulbright Specialist. She can be contacted via her website www.tkmurray.com and found on Twitter @poly_math_.


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