By Teachers, For Teachers
I’ll never forget the moment when my teacher went around the room and quoted all of the class’s names by memory … on the second day of school. She had just met us the day before. Half of us still hadn’t learned her name. Still, she welcomed us to the room, had us take our seats, and then said, “Let’s see if I remember most of your names.” Then she pointed at each of us one by one – all 25 of us – and said each person’s name without faltering. I was sold. From that moment on, we all knew that she cared a great deal about us, and I realized the power of something so simple as remembering someone’s name. Dale Carnegie wrote in his seminal work “How to Win Friends and Influence People” about how important names are. He said, “Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” This goes doubly true for our students. Remembering someone’s name shows that we care, and our care for students should take centerstage when we encounter them at the beginning of the year.
I have done “My trick” for learning students’ names for many years now, and each time it has generated the same result for me as it did when my teacher did it years ago. The students are impressed and convinced that they are more than just “Another student” sitting in my room.
I’ll indulge you with just one story of how this made an impression on a student:
It was the second day of class, and I happened to be standing next to him at his desk. He turned to me and said, “I bet you don’t even know my name yet.”
I smiled and said, “I do know your name.”
“Oh yeah, then what is it?”
“Your name is Jason Green II. You’re named after your dad. Except you don’t go by Jason; you go by Thomas, your middle name.”
His face was visibly startled. He turned and faced forward with a new, unexpected respect for his teacher. This was the beginning of a great year between Thomas and I.
There’s nothing magical or foolproof about my method. I play no memory tricks or pneumonic games to remember names. I simply put time and effort into learning who the people in my classroom are.
I should also mention that this is a first-names-only goal. Last names can be more unique, difficult to remember, and even challenging to pronounce. I’ll work on that later.
Here is my step by step approach to learning all my students’ first names by the start of the second day:
1. Create a seating chart. This actually isn’t essential, but it is very helpful. Where students sit helps me recall names. If they’re sitting in one seat today but a different seat tomorrow, it’s harder to remember who they are. A seating chart gives some consistency and uniformity to the room that helps me organize names in my memory.
If you have the ability to generate pictures along with students’ names, do that. The better tools you have to correspond a students’ face and name, the easier the process will be.
2. Study students’ names. There’s nothing fancy about this. I just commit to some old-school studying of my student roster. I read the names through multiple times. I take notice of things that might be useful (“I have three kids named Jacob” or “There are 22 boys and 8 girls”). I’m not trying to memorize just yet, but I am giving myself a small degree of context and familiarity with the names and faces.
3. First day of school. Among the other first-day-of-school activities, I include introductions. I have tried a variety of creative introduction activities, but at the most basic level I am essentially looking to go around the room and have students tell me their name. Here, they tell me if they prefer a nickname, and I ask them follow-up questions about pronunciation or anything that sparks my curiosity about their name. I make careful written notes on my roster to record what they tell me.
4. Rehearse names. When my students leave after a doubtlessly magnificent first day of school, I return to the notes I took and do my best to remember each name. Then I will look at just the students’ school picture on my seating chart and try to recall each of their names; on some occasions I have walked past their desks and done the same thing.
5. Rehearse again before class. On day two prior to class starting, I try to solidify my memory of students’ names by repeating the rehearsal process. I look at the picture and try to recall the name. This is a great reminder right before seeing the students again.
6. Tell students their names. It’s finally time for that work to pay off. I might begin class by asking if students remember my name (being “Catapano,” many students forget the name or pronunciation at first, which is OK). Then they inevitably say, “But you don’t know all our names!” Then I go around the room and say each and every one of their names just like I practiced, and enjoy the looks on their faces and the next step in our relationship we’ve taken.
Sometimes I might just skip the showcasing and go straight to the activity, intentionally using each student’s name as I interact with them. “What do you think, Sarah?” “Good idea, Mirna.” “Great team work, DeShawn.” Students always notice when you know their names.
The beginning of the year can be busy, but it’s worth it to set some time aside and focus on student names. Elementary teachers with one class of students might have an easier time learning names quickly. But this method is doable at any level. Remember, I did this in high school, where during a typical year I would be assigned approximately125 students.
When students know their teacher hasn’t learned their names yet, they feel a degree of anonymity. They can almost feel hidden and unknown. Oftentimes, teachers learn the names of the most outgoing (or troublesome) students first. More reserved students tend to fade into the background and get recognized later on. But when the teacher shows on the second day of school they know ALL students’ names, everyone is treated as equal and sees they have value in the teacher’s eyes.
Names are just the beginning. They’re an important beginning, but learning names just scratches the surface of what we should eventually pursue with our students. I of course don’t follow this method for other information about students, but I do keep the intent at the forefront throughout the year. My intent is to show students I care enough about them to know them. Finding ways to know students more and more is part of the goal for the rest of the year.
While the name is just a starting point, I use our discussions, activities, informal conversations, writing prompts, parent phone class, class surveys, and anything else I can think to have students share about themselves to me. And then, I do my best to do an amazing thing in the eyes of the students: I remember what they tell me.
Do you like this method for learning student names? What teaching strategies do you use? What other advice do you have for building relationships early in the school year? Share your thoughts in a comment below!
Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website www.jordancatapano.us.