During a morning playtime session in Sara Birkeland’s pre-K classroom at Maxfield Elementary School in St. Paul, students drifted between playing house and building puzzles to water coloring and drawing on mini whiteboards.
While roaming the room to affirm positive behaviors and redirect budding disputes, a student came up calling “teacher” to get Birkeland’s attention.
This prompted a mini interpersonal skills lesson.
Birkeland gently corrected the student with a reminder that she prefers to be called by her name. It’s the same expectation she has of herself and the other adults in her classroom, when they’re interacting with students.
Getting names right is not something she takes lightly.
“There are very few things in children’s lives that are more intimate to them than their names,” she said. “And when they go to school, they’re first trying to separate from their family’s identity. One way to do that is to embrace their first name.”
In order to create a classroom environment where getting everyone’s name right matters, she starts doing legwork before the school year begins. Working in a racially diverse school, she’s constantly presented with names she’s not familiar with. So once she gets her classroom roster and begins connecting with families — by doing home visits and making phone calls — she makes sure to ask them to model how to pronounce their child’s name.
“Family communication — that’s the answer. For some reason, we have it in our heads that it’s impolite or somehow ignorant to ask,” she said, adding this request is never poorly received when it comes from a place of caring.
As classrooms across the state continue to become more diverse, so do the names on the student rosters teachers get each year. Making the effort to pronounce students’ names correctly — from the get-go — is a simple way to impact a student’s self-perception, as well as their level of engagement in the classroom. Yet, as students can attest, it’s not something that always gets taken seriously enough.
Why pronunciation matters
Rita Kohli, an assistant professor of education at the University of California at Riverside, co-authored a study in 2012 titled “Teacher, please learn our names!: racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom” that sheds some light on why saying names right matters in school settings. Focusing on the K-12 experiences of students of color, she had a group of adults complete a questionnaire and participate in follow-up interviews. Through these reflections, it became clear that the mispronunciation of names can be harmful.
“What we found was that students of color who were part of these experiences, they started to kind of shift the burden onto themselves. They started to feel that their name was kind of their responsibility and the way it sounded to others — or if was hard to pronounce, as framed by the teacher — that was an inconvenience or a burden,” Kohli said. “They developed a lot of anxiety, shame, embarrassment around their names.”
These emotions manifested in different ways in the classroom. Some participants said they ended up changing their names, to accommodate the mispronunciations, Kohli said. Others “disengaged” in the classroom, not raising their hand in order to avoid having their name said out loud.
After the study came out, Kohli says it received some pushback from folks who countered that white students also have their names mispronounced. But she holds firm to the scope of her study.
“What we’re arguing is: This experience — embedded in a larger structure where 82 percent of teachers are white and predominantly monolingual, where students of color are not seeing themselves represented in their curriculum — this is just one additional layer that affirms to them — that’s directly tied to their family and their identity — that who they are doesn’t matter in those spaces,” she said.
For Meti Regassa, a second-year student studying community health at Bethel University, in St. Paul, preserving her name in the classroom has been a lifelong challenge. It’s pronounced “May-tea” — like the month of May and a cup of tea. While she often offers up this strategy for her Minnesotan teachers and peers, she says it’s a fairly common name in the Oromo ethnic group, from Ethiopia. It means “jewel.” But, traditionally, it’s spelled with multiple t’s and i’s, she added — something her parents decided to drop when they brought her to America at age 4.
“We already had to assimilate our names, to a certain extent, just by coming here,” she said.
While she tries not to get hung up over every single mispronunciation, Regassa says it’s hard not to feel disrespected. So she doesn’t hesitate to correct people. But she can’t control the way new teachers take to saying her name out loud for the first time. Or whether or not they care enough to take her correction seriously.
During her elementary years in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, she says she doesn’t really remember anyone struggling with her name. But when she moved to the less ethnically diverse Edina Public Schools district as a seventh-grader, her name took on a new significance. “That’s when I was really exposed to my identity, when it come to social constructs of race,” she said. “That’s where my name came into play.”
She recalls agonizing over daily roll call in some of her classes, because she knew the teacher was going to butcher her name, she said, noting these were teachers she’d had for months. And similar experiences continue to play out with some of her professors, she says.
‘I just felt so disrespected,” she said. “It’s something they overlooked, easily.”
She’s even had substitute teachers get to her name on the class roster and say, “I’m not even gonna try this one” — and the even more dismissive: “I’m just going to assume this person is here, because I have no idea how to say this name.”
Regassa says there are so many ways to go about learning how to say students’ names in a respectful way. For instance, at the start of this school year, one of her college professors passed an attendance sheet around the classroom with a column for students to write out the correct way to pronounce their name.
“He’s never mispronounced it,” she said.
Making names a priority
Sandrine Sugi, a second-year student studying psychology at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, recently made the decision to reclaim her birth name.
During her K-12 experience, first in the Brooklyn Center Community Schools district and then in the Wayzata Public Schools district, she says she opted to go by the nickname “Sandy.” Her birth name, which is a common French name in her parents’ home country of Rwanda, felt too “adult like” for her younger self.
Before she had the opportunity to clue teachers into her chosen nickname, she often endured teachers fumbling over her birth name at the start of the year. But they often did so in a self-deprecating way, inviting corrections, she said.
“They really put that effort in,” she said. “I always appreciated that. That kind of made the environment more welcoming and put me at ease.”
After making the transition to college, she says she decided to drop the nickname and try on her birth name that felt “too womanly” before. It has required gently reminding close friends to break old habits, and forced her to be more confident about correcting professors who struggle to pronounce it correctly. But it’s also sparked meaningful conversations about her family and background.
“I think it fits me better, or I want it to fit me better. It’s about taking back the power of that name, for me,” she said. “I feel your name is your identity. You should take it seriously. If someone gets it wrong, you shouldn’t feel — I don’t even know what I felt. Pushy? Just tell them. Be kind.”
Building upon Kohli’s research, another group of scholars in California launched the “My Name, My Identity” campaign, as a call to action for educators and others who interact with youth.
The purpose of the pledge initiative is to bring awareness to the importance of pronouncing students’ names correctly and to “build a respectful and inclusive culture in our school communities that values diversity,” said Yee Wan, director of Multilingual Education Services for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
She says the campaign has received, and sustained, lots of attention nationwide. It directs educators to various strategies, including lesson plans and new technology tools like Flipgrid, a video discussion platform. But the power of simply asking a student how to say the student’s name and then modeling it correctly for the rest of the class can be just as effective, Wan says.
More commonly, efforts around reminding teachers how important it is to say students’ names correctly are less explicit. It’s often touched on as one component, of many, in culturally responsive training sessions that educators participate in as part of their ongoing professional development training.
Sharroky Hollie, executive director of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, a California-based nonprofit, has been running these culturally responsive training in Minnesota schools since 2013. More recently, he’s been invited to work in districts located further outside of the Twin Cities area — places like South Washington, Fridley, Prior Lake, St. Cloud, Stillwater and Sauk Rapids.
As far as name pronunciation is concerned, he says he doesn’t teach any particular strategies to educators. There’s no reason to frame this basic interpersonal skill as something that’s tethered to culturally responsive teaching, he says.
“It’s just a common respect to get someone’s name right. I see that as almost like a prerequisite to being culturally responsive,” he said. “ I don’t want an educator feeling like doing something that’s so basic is doing something special. Getting a student’s name right should be basic.”
He does talk with educators about validating and affirming who their students are, an effort that certainly includes getting their names right. Often, given the opportunity, students will gladly share the history and cultural significance of their names, he said.
Corina Pastrana, a program facilitator for the Minneapolis Public Schools district who supports ESL and bilingual teachers, weaves this same message into the professional development trainings she conducts.
For her, the lesson is personal. Her family moved here from Mexico when she was young. She kept her birth name because, even at a young age, she knew it was part of her heritage and personality. But all three of her siblings changed theirs to avoid having their name constantly mispronounced.
“Part of being culturally relevant is understanding students’ names,” she said, noting that as a teacher, she often had students share their name stories as an icebreaker in class to tap into what makes them proud, or the things they value.
“You don’t really need to speak the student’s language to say their name,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be exact, but it has to be approximate. Students appreciate that. They appreciate when you try to get it as close as possible. But when you’re saying something that doesn’t even sound like it, that’s insulting.”