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How can teachers create more inclusive, welcoming classrooms? It starts by saying students’ names correctly.

Sara Birkeland
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
In order to create a classroom environment where getting everyone’s name right matters, Sara Birkeland starts doing legwork before the school year begins.

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.

Maxfield Elementary classroom
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Making the effort to pronounce students’ names correctly — from the get-go — is a simple way to positively impact a student’s self-perception, as well as their level of engagement in the classroom.
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.

Meti Regassa
Meti Regassa
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.”

Sandrine Sugi
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Sandrine Sugi
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.”

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Pat Terry on 10/05/2018 - 09:15 am.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t link to this Key and Peele bit:

    While it is funny, its actually on point as its really about white teachers being unwilling or unable to pronounce African-American names correctly.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 10/05/2018 - 09:57 am.

    While there was no racial aspect to the situation, I can recall the disgust and annoyance a friend had when our elementary principal called him by his name. First, she used his last name. It was one of the rare not too difficult to pronounce Polish names, but she managed to butcher it still. He and his older sister had been in the school for at least 7 years, and there was a younger sister also.

    He was no saint, but it was so easy to see his reaction, and to think the proncipal had no clue.

    Layering race over this would have made it worse.

    I believe it was the huckster Dale Carnegie who said that the sweetest sound in the English language was one’s own name.

  3. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/05/2018 - 10:33 am.

    “Getting a student’s name right should be basic.” Absolutely, and it has little to do with being “culturally relevant,” though it’s fine if someone wants to interpret it that way.

    Sometimes, life hands us little lessons to be learned whether we want them or not, and whether we’re aware of them or not. My surname has only 6 letters, one of which is a vowel, but it’s been routinely butchered by students and adults pretty much all my life. Accordingly, decades ago when I began my teaching career, I made a point of taking a stab at student names I didn’t know or wasn’t sure of, simply because I was accustomed to my own name being butchered in pronunciation, and assumed the kids didn’t like their name being mangled any more than I did.

    I always asked, after I made the attempt at their name, “How do **you** say it?” With some frequency, I got a response of “It doesn’t matter,” to which I always replied “Yes, it does,” and I made sure I had eye contact when I said it. I paid careful attention to their own pronunciation, and sometimes we went back and forth a couple of times until I had it right – according to them.

    I made the effort because it was, as Mr. Hollie suggested, “basic,” but I also had selfish reasons. At the beginning of a semester, new students often didn’t even try to say my name. They’d raise their hand with a question, and then start the question with “Mr. Uuuuuhhh…” and pause, waiting for me to fill in the name. I wanted them to get used to trying out unfamiliar words, names included, so I never gave that first student my name, but instead insisted that they give it a try. They always did, and they always butchered it, and **then** I’d say my name, which told them how to pronounce it. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, too, in this case.

    And, in case we should meet at a MinnPost function, Schoch is Bavarian (southern Germany), pronounced as one syllable: the sound “Show” (as in performance, play or concert), followed by the sound of a hard “K.” Phonetically, it’s “Shok,” with the bar over the “o” that my keyboard doesn’t have, but which would indicate that it’s a “long ‘o.’”

  4. Submitted by Tory Koburn on 10/05/2018 - 12:26 pm.

    This can be particularly tricky, if like me you are a new teacher coming from a suburban, white & middle class background, and starting out in urban schools in the Twin Cities. There’s such wide range of Hmong, Somali, Karen, and African-American names, that even when you get a “normal” European-style name, you might just be so harried and overwhelmed that you’ll botch that one too!

    I tried to be really open about it, and have some levity while letting everyone know that it’s important to me that I pronounce their name correctly – that I might mess it up at first, but I’m going to make my best good-faith effort to get it right. Besides talking it out, it helped a bit taking some names home and googling standard pronunciations. I thought I had “Nyugen” down, but even that name can have slightly different pronunciations depending on the family! Just have to try my best…

  5. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 10/05/2018 - 01:15 pm.

    Department of Education. Provide a resource. For every name of every student in Minnesota develop a pronunciation guide available as an online basis. Then at the local school level develop lists with the standard pronouncing for regular teachers and subs, whosd attendance list should have the correct pronunciation. If a student uses a pronunciation other than the standard, change through list. And this is not just a teacher problem but affects students. They respect each other by by saying their classmates name correctly.

  6. Submitted by Curtis Senker on 10/06/2018 - 10:50 am.

    REJECT WN: Maybe later..
    “Department of Education. Provide a resource. For every name of every student in Minnesota develop…”

    Sure, why not? If the schools can’t educate these kids, the very least they can do is pronounce their names.

  7. Submitted by George Kimball on 10/07/2018 - 09:00 am.

    My wife was born in China and we spend time with the local Chinese/Minnesota community. And we have hosted four Chinese students who attended area middle and high schools.

    It is a common practice for these students (and students from other countries, as I’ve discovered), to be asked either by the facilitating organization prior to coming to the USA – or by school officials upon arrival here – to choose and adopt an “American” first name. I suppose this request is done innocently and in the belief the student will blend in better and with the thought that they are sparing the student embarrassment when, inevitably, teachers and classmates “butcher” their names.

    I’ve always suspected, though, that the name change is primarily for the benefit of the school staff, host families, and American-born students. God forbid they be asked to make even a small effort to learn and practice a foreign name.

    Bravo to the schools and staff that are embracing the students’ names! As host parents, Fei (pronounced almost identically to the fairly common American woman’s name, “Fay”) and I have always called our host students – and their international friends/classmates by their “real” names / or, as with many Chinese kids, the Chinese nickname bestowed upon them by parents or grandparents at or shortly after birth.

    Hopefully more and more schools and international sludent exchange organizations will embrace this practice and make using actual names standard practice.

  8. Submitted by Sandy Lucas on 10/07/2018 - 08:55 pm.

    During the first day of school, students make name tents with the name they prefer to be called, then I have them hold that up and I use my iPad to video them saying their own name. I tell them that’s MY homework for the first week of school.

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