But That’s Not My Name

wrong name
When my little brother and I were in primary school, one of the teachers used to sometimes call him by name, because he had taught us both, and then every time he made the error, he promised to give my little brother some kind of sweet. It turned it into a bit of a game. I couldn’t see the reason why he was getting sweets – all it was was confusing his name, it’s not like there is anything horrid about being called Jonathan.

Now, obviously I see things a bit differently. A name is important and it is a pretty clear-cut and simple element of somebody’s identity, no matter how hard or simple it might be for you to pronounce. To not take the effort to say their name correctly is disrespectful and very often racially charged, whether unwittingly or not.

I was talking recently with my friends Siobhan, Sian, Sinead, Sean, Isaac, Chloe and Thomas. I wasn’t. I don’t have friends. But if I did, and if you happened to find them on your Class Register next week, you’d be able to pronounce their names. Those names aren’t phonetic.

Some other names you will find on your Registers might startle you and fill you with anxiety. We aren’t callous and the reason we feel anxious is because we recognise that it is rude to get the names wrong. This anxiety is not enough though. Sure, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves and we don’t want to insult our kids but no matter what names you find on your register, it is crucial that you learn to pronounce them correctly, and correctly means how the child wants it pronounced.

Perhaps you will have kids coming into your class next week who consistently are wrongly addressed by their previous teachers. The message that this gives off is that we don’t care enough to learn about them – it is hard to convince somebody that you are invested in them if you are calling them by a wrong name.

This is particularly pronounced for kids whose names are not traditional English/Biblical names and whose names fall outside the average teacher’s comfort zone (and in England, the ‘average teacher’ is white and British). Strangely enough, phonic plausibility appears not to be the decisive factor. Faced with a register full Asian and Muslim names containing ‘z’s ‘kh’s ‘qe’s and ‘qi’s, some new teachers have baulked and begun immediately worrying about the unfamiliarity of the letters within names, and of the combinations. Similarly for names of pupils of Eastern European descent.

Zulfiqar is far easier to pronounce than Siobhan. If you can pronounce Siobhan correctly and choose not to pronounce Zulfiqar correctly – and it is a choice – it is disrespectful. Not knowing is a choice when you have the option of making yourself know, and decide not to.

This is not me idly pontificating from atop the Tower of Babel. I know that I am guilty of many of the things I have been saying just now, but I am better at it now than I have been in the past, and I am making a concerted effort to get it right. Many kids will not tell you you are getting it wrong. Some of them will not even tell you if you ask them directly – it can be a pretty embarrassing conversation to have to repeatedly and often publicly repeat your name into the face of an adult. You owe it to your kids to get it right.

So in the spirit of exchange, here is a fuzzy little getting to know you task.

Get the kids in a circle and explain that you are doing a Getting to Know You activity. Tell them that you are excited to get to know more about them (because you are!) and that you have a bit of a game for it. Each person needs to think of a word to describe themselves which begins with the first letter of the name (Angry Ali, Joyful Jessica, Kooky Khalid) and they need to come up with a random fact. They then speak it out in this simple structure.

My name is (adjective) Name. My random fact is … WHYYYYYYY? Because I am (adjective) Name!

My name is Powerful Przemek. My random fact is that my uncle plays for Clapton FC. WHHHYYYY? Because I am Powerful Przemek.

1) This task allows the kids a bit of a silly outlet to express themselves, and for you to get to know them.

2) The simple structure means the overwhelming majority of kids can access it.

3) The kids focus entirely on the funny facts.

4) Each kid says their name twice, and the sentence they say is long enough for you to jot down on paper a little transliteration, without the potential embarrassment of putting them on the spot about their pronunciation.

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4 thoughts on “But That’s Not My Name

  1. Nice idea for the activity, and I agree that knowing names – and knowing them properly is hugely important. Is there any reason though to not just say to the child “I’m sorry but I haven’t seen your name before and I’m not sure how to pronounce it properly, so please could you tell me how to say it”. Good for kids to see that teachers aren’t omniscient, no?

  2. Good to read, Jonny.

    Not sure if l’ve said this to you before, but when I was a head I taught each Year 7 class (usually four classes in a year group) for one lesson a week, which meant within the first few weeks I’d learnt all their names (and how to pronounce them). This made a huge difference to my developing relationship with them during their years in the school.

    I think it was, perhaps, my single best decision as a head.

    1. Hi Jill. You haven’t mentioned that before but I can fully imagine it would have the desired effects. It is the simplest and clearest way to acknowledge another person to address them by their name – still now, as an adult, to be remembered and recognised is so important and for kids, I suspect it is even stronger. It’s a great thing for a head to do.

      1. Really good in assembly when making presentations to pupils not to have to say, “Which one are you?” or to give a certificate/medal/award to the wrong child!

        I remember looking round a big sports hall assembly gathering at the start of my eighth year there and thinking, “I could tell you the name of every one of the 700 pupils in the senior school” and realising I was the only member of staff who could because I was the only one who had had the privilege of teaching them ALL!

        Have a good long bank holiday weekend – ready for the fray!

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