What’s your strategy for learning names?
Learning your students’ names quickly helps set a great tone for the semester.
Here are five ways to get it done:
Set a goal
I was born good at names. It’s a little eerie sometimes. Also, most classes I’ve taught are relatively small. In that kind of situation, I’ll usually know people’s names within the first two sessions without trying particularly hard.
But my goal is always to know my students’ names by the end of the first class session. I expect them to work hard – I can push myself, too.
You should set a goal that works for you, but make it as soon as humanly possible.
Feeling like you need some external motivation? Schedule a Name Test for yourself, and make it as public as you dare!
Use Two-Sided Name Placards
Yes, do some typical introductions and warm-ups. But don’t stop there.
On the first day, hand out card stock and dark markers. Ask students to write down the name they wish to be called on both sides. This helps the entire class learn names, including the students who sit in the back, and including the teacher.
Collect the placards at the end of each session so they’re always available in class. Plan to use them for at least the first five weeks of the semester.
Quiz yourself in both directions: face-to-name and name-to-face. Read down the roster, picturing each individual’s face. When you work with students’ assignments, attendance, grading, etc., deliberately picture each student. In class, look systematically around the room, recalling each individual’s name. At home, picture where each student was sitting and recall their names.
None of this takes a designated block of time, just a minute or two of your attention.
During your practice, make sure you don’t rely on identifying students by their hair, makeup, jacket, or other features of style they may choose to change at any time. You also can’t assume they’ll always be in the same seat – you need to know them wherever they’re standing or sitting.
If coming up with any particular name gives you trouble, practice repetition in multiple modalities: say it, write it, think it, spell it out loud, trace it on your palm with your finger, place it into a short tune or rhyme – play to your strengths!
Know Your Error Style
What types of name errors do you tend toward? And how does it manifest: blanking? garbling? slow recall? mixing up faces?
I’m a garbler, so mnemonics are my friend. My classic name problem is to mix up and/or reverse syllables in new-to-me names.
Since I know this is my error style, I recognize names that will give me trouble right away and immediately start building mental structures to keep me on track.
It’s often simple things, like “me in the middle” or remembering that this friendly person ironically has a syllable that sounds like mean in her name (not neam, but mean).
If you mix up faces, ask permission to take photos, perhaps of rows of students at a time. Use the photos to study.
If you panic and blank, just going through the motions of studying may help you feel more confident, which may in turn help you blank less. You should also experiment with practicing in other modalities (see above) – maybe one clicks more readily for you than others do.
Double-Check Your Pronunciation
Names are important to people, even if they don’t say so. Take an extra few minutes to check your pronunciation. It’s really not awkward because the only reason anyone would check is because s/he cares. Even if it’s already halfway through the semester – just check.
How do you check? First, listen. How do the students and other teachers pronounce the students’ names? Do any differ from how you say them?
Then, directly ask individuals. You just quietly ask. Here are a couple of examples:
“I hear different people say your name differently. How do you say your name? What do you prefer?”
“This is how I say your name. Is that right? How can I say it better?”
You can be less direct too, perhaps asking everyone to re-introduce themselves to build classroom community, or by making a public “test the teacher” activity.
If you can just feel the pronunciations sliding through your head, ask again. Simply say that you’re having trouble with this name, but that it’s important to you to get it right. Try saying a name two or three different ways and asking which is best. Write your understanding of the pronunciation and ask, “Like this?” Write it down for yourself in IPA. You can even ask if you can make an audio recording of the student saying his or her name properly.
Names matter. They’re worth the work it takes to memorize them. My best semesters have been ones where there’s a sense of community in the classroom, and it’s incredibly hard to have that when you’re not fluent in their names.
Get them quickly, and get them right!
Have a great semester!