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The Magic of Using Students’ Names

One of the most important things a teacher can do is use the names of his or her students. Using a student’s name evokes such power, it’s almost mystical. It’s an incantation, and enchantment. There’s a reason why some demons in ancient stories lose their power if you learn their names, or why if you say a creature’s name three times, s/he’ll show up. Our names are as intimate as our identities. They call us. We answer to them.

Using students’ names creates a relationship with students. Using a name indicates, “I know you. We have a connection. In my world, you exist, and you are worth knowing.” This is a powerful affirmation of a student’s life.

The First Day of School

When I taught high school, I would challenge myself to say goodbye, by name, to each student after the very first class session. Usually I was able to do it. Here’s how:

  1. I made sure I had a list of students’ names.
  2. I had the students introduce themselves briefly.
  3. I assigned a 5-10 minute in-class writing activity. While the students wrote, I used the list to memorize their names.
  4. We would spend the rest of class discussing what the students wrote, and I would use every student’s name when I called on him or her. I would use the list only if I had to.
  5. By the end of class, I could usually say goodbye to each student by name as he or she handed in the writing assignment on the way out of class.

Of course, I was a lot younger then.

With photo rosters, today learning names is easier than ever. Teachers can work from a list at first, but actually learning students’ names and using them regularly is when the magic happens.

The Teacher’s Name

In many schools today, particularly urban schools in my experience, the students will call all the male teachers “Mr.” and all the female teachers “Miss.” No last names.

I think at least in some ways, this is a power move on the students’ part. Not using the teacher’s name is a way to say, “You may know who I am, but you don’t know me, and I don’t know you. We do not have a relationship. We work together, but you are just another teacher.”

If I were teaching in this environment, I would try to avoid requiring students to use my name or getting angry at them if they didn’t. (Honestly, I probably would feel a little insulted.) Instead, I would try to get the students to choose to use my name. And when/if they did use it, I would consider that a dramatic success.

When I taught high school, I was known as “Mr. L.” Since then I have been “Dr. Lindblom,” “Professor Lindblom,” and very recently “Dean Lindblom.” Of these, the name that made me the happiest and the proudest was “Mr. L.”

Cheerful acknowledgement from adolescents is a rare achievement indeed!


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