Have you seen the Key and Peele skit called “Substitute Teacher”? In the sketch, a Black guest teacher takes attendance and mispronounces the names of White students like Jacqueline, Denise, Aaron, and Blake. The students respond with confused silence, back talk, and laughter. The teacher reprimands them, calling them “insubordinate and churlish” and sending them to the principal’s office. It’s funny because we know the opposite is true. It is our minority students who suffer the constant butchering of their names. But as educators, we really shouldn’t be laughing.
We’ve known for a long time that an individual’s name is an important part of their identity. Personally, when I hear someone call me “Kim” instead of “Kimmie”, I immediately think to myself, “That person doesn’t know me.” In my new teacher orientation, our coach told us that the sweetest sound to the human ear is its own name. We were directed to greet our students by name at the door every morning. I remember my fourth grade teacher taking roll on the first day of school and asking us our preferred names. My friend Sara Elisabeth, for example, wanted to go by Beth. One little boy piped up, “My dad always calls me ‘Tiger’!” And bless Mr. Winnie, he called that kid Tiger all year.
Unfortunately, not everyone is as flexible as Mr. Winnie. I have many friends, family members, and acquaintances who have been called something other than their given name for the “ease” of those around them. My Vietnamese cousin uses the American pronunciation of her name at work, even though no one in the family calls her that. An Argentinian friend of mine went by her middle name because her first name was “too hard” for her boss. It caused some headaches when she applied for another job later on and her references didn’t know her given name. In high school, we all called a dear friend of ours Susanna; it wasn’t until college when she was able to start over, in a sense, that she reclaimed her Japanese name.
As a teacher, I was determined to say my students’ names correctly. I speak Spanish fluently, so I used the Spanish pronunciation of my Hispanic students’ names. I was delighted when the students’ classmates started to use the correct pronunciation as well. However, I questioned myself when the parent of one of those students introduced himself to me using an American pronunciation of his name (using the “j” sound for “g” instead of the Spanish “h” sound). I’ve met several kids who reject the Spanish pronunciation and insist on the American version. I was embarrassed at having “policed” the pronunciation, especially since I’m not Latina myself. I’ve come to the conclusion that what’s most important is that teachers honor the students’ wishes where their names are concerned. However, I think it’s important to have a conversation with the child and make sure they know they don’t have to change to make things easier for anyone else.
I taught for thirteen years, so I know the excitement of getting your class list and the painstaking trouble you go through to create nametags, labels, folders, and more. I also understand the frustration when you realize Robert uses his middle name or Elizabeth goes by Ella. (A great way to avoid this trouble is to include a space for a nickname on the enrollment card. We added this later on in my career, and I was able to look up my students online before school even started.) At Open House my first year of teaching, a dad came without his daughter and told me I’d misspelled her name. So I fixed it. The next day (the first day of school), the student informed me that I’d had it right in the first place. So I fixed it again. Although it is inconvenient, I promise it is 100% worth it to make the change. When it’s something as important as a name, you don’t want a child to feel like you couldn’t be bothered. If you have a student who is transitioning, using their new name (and preferred pronouns) is an essential part of meeting that child’s needs for acceptance and belonging.
Am I the only one who is tired of the “I’m just not good with names” refrain? We’re better than that. When you take the time to get a student’s name right, it’s about more than ensuring correct pronunciation. You send a very specific message to the child: “I see you. I know you. I care about you enough to get this right.”