Tuesday, October 18, 2016

What's in a name?

As an instructional coach, I get to work with both ESOL and mainstream teachers alike to help them improve many aspects of their professional practice, from instruction to collaboration with colleagues to cultural awareness. Recently, I met with an ESOL specialist who expressed frustration that one of the teachers she was working with refused to spell two of her students' names correctly, even after the correct spelling was shown to her in the students' registration documents. It broke my heart to hear this.

Identity & Respect
To me, name is an important part of a person's identity. My name is not all that difficult- Laurah- but it still frequently is misspelled when people drop the "h". Other times, people move the "h" to the end of my last name instead. This seems like a small thing, but getting a person's name correct- whether you're spelling it or saying it- shows that you've taken the time to address them properly, and is a small sign of respect. If this is something that bothers me even as an adult, it surely bothers the children. I know it bothered me when I was in school, too. When someone persists with the mispronunciation or misspelling even after being corrected, I tend to lose respect for that person, because I perceive a lack of respect on their part for me.

Culture, Family and Heritage
When parents find out that they're expecting, they usually spend a great deal of time selecting a name that they feel is just right for their little bundle of joy- including the spelling they use. When you disregard the importance of pronouncing or spelling the child's name correctly, you are sending a message- whether you mean to or not- that the student and their culture or family are not important; that it is not worth your time or effort to pronounce or spell their name correctly. Is that really a message you want to send to your students or their parents? You don't have to get it right the first time- asking the student to teach you to say or spell their name properly is enough to show that you respect the student as a person, you respect their culture, and that you feel they are "important enough" to say or spell their name properly.

Bigotry and Microaggression
Former educator Jennifer Gonzalez from the Cult of Pedagogy describes mispronouncing a student's name is a "tiny act of bigotry" and reminds us that such an act communicates to a student that because their name is different or foreign, it's not worth your time to get it right. Making a mistake is fine- but refusing to try (such as saying "or whatever" when you bungle the name instead of trying again) or insisting that your pronunciation is "good enough" is a type of microaggression that can undermine learning in your classroom. Looking at this from another viewpoint, a common way in our culture of making fun of someone is to bungle up their name and make a joke of it. This happens because names are such an important part of who we are that changing it to something unflattering can cause a great deal of hurt!

Make a Change
Think back over your time as an educator- have you made a genuine effort to correctly spell and pronounce your students' names correctly? If not- it's time for a change! This is yet another chance for you to grow as an educator. Take the student or family aside and ask them to teach you to say or spell the difficult name correctly. I can almost guarantee that they will be happy to take the time to do it, and their estimation of you will rise in the process. For some students and families, you may be the first person who has even tried. If you need to, create a pronunciation guide for yourself and keep it somewhere you'll see it when taking attendance or grading papers- like your gradebook or as a sticky note on your computer screen.

School should be a safe place for our students to come and learn. There are so many other things in their lives that can cause anxiety and interfere with learning- how their teacher pronounces or spells their name shouldn't be on the list.


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