Changing Our Thinking: Student Names

Changing Our Thinking: Student Names

There are many practices from long ago that we need to rethink as teachers. This series looks to bring up those practices and offer alternate ideas that are more relevant in today’s classroom. Today we’re discussing making fun of student names. 

 There is no such thing as a weird name. Names are names and they are important. Names are cultural no culture is weird. They should be honored and treated with respect.
 
If you follow Bored Teachers then you no doubt saw this now deleted post on Instagram.  At the time I saw it I was so sick I couldn’t even respond.  Hmm, I wrote last that sentence because at the time I was physically sick (fever, vomiting- the fun part of my summer) but you could also say I was sick to my stomach. I did manage to hit unfollow. I just saw it on Pinterest today so while it was deleted it is still floating around and people are repinning it.

The caption on the insta post said, “worse and worse every year.” This is not ok. Let’s talk about it. If you’re doing this, stop. This is disrespectful to students and families. 

Why We Mock Kid's Names

Let’s face it, many teachers are white. All of my elementary teachers were white women. The profession seems to cater towards women like me. Names are a very cultural thing. When I went to school I knew a lot of kids named Sarah or Mike. There were a lot of Ashleys. There were also a lot of people named Mary, Matthew, Luke, Noah, Ruth because I went to a Catholic school. Kids named after saints or biblical characters were normal. The names you hear day in and day out seem normal to you. If I ever met a Mike I wouldn’t think what a funny name. It would never cross my mind. I know a lot of people named Mike. 

When we hear names that are new to us they might sound different and sometimes we label that as weird. Different isn’t weird it is just different. It started to become common practice for teachers to look at their class lists and make fun of the names that were on it. Because white women have a large voice in elementary education and because white people are the majority race it meant that names that weren’t the majority were labeled weird. Teachers would gather around and laugh at kids names… I shouldn’t actually write any of this in past tense. Teachers gather around their list of students and laugh about student names. Who’d you get this year? Look at this kids name? Could this parent spell this name in a worse way? How do you even say this? What kind of name is ____? Who would ever name their kid ____? Oh gosh, look at these sibling’s names!

I’ve heard teachers laugh at a child whose name is Julia but the J is pronounced like a J in Spanish. I’ve heard teachers mock students named Princess, Precious, Destiny, Dymond, and I’cy. I’ve heard teachers laugh at the spelling of kids names Aimee, Jayson, Brookelynne, or Apryl. All teachers have heard of kids called L-a, or Lemonjello and Orangejello. Teachers friends love to hear of kids called King, Stormi (has this been normalized now because of Kylie Jenner?), Furious, Younique, or Thunder.

Please know that I am not coming from an almighty place of immunity. I have looked at my class list and done the same. I would argue that a lot of teachers are in the same category as me. It doesn’t feel good to admit on this blog that I have made fun of children’s names but I have to confess before we discuss why I’ve stopped doing this and why you need to do the same.

What's the Problem?

Naming a Child is a Labor of love

The problem is that first of all THESE ARE CHILDREN. Children who are going to walk into your classroom. They deserve love and respect. They deserve to be treated with kindness. They deserve a teacher who didn’t laugh at their name with their family and friends over the weekend.

Now, I don’t have any children so I haven’t been an active participant in the naming business. I do have many friends who have children. I have watched them make lists and discuss the pros and cons of every name. I have watched them consider what nicknames will be for name options. How the name sounds. I have listened to stories of the people children are named after. I am named after a woman near and dear to my mother’s heart. I have heard parents describe meeting their child for the first time, being filled up with love and just knowing that this child should be named ____. Naming a child is a labor of love. New babies fill parents’ hearts with hopes, wishes, dreams, and joy.

Can you imagine naming a child only to have people mock that name because it is different their whole lives? That is the exact opposite of what any parent wants for their child. I know parents who have kept their expected child’s name a secret because they don’t want people to make fun of the name before the child is even born. I’ve heard people tell stories of people trying to talk them out of a baby name in the hospital immediately after the baby was born. 

This isn’t ok. 

If you aren’t the parent of the child then you really have no say in the name. Unless of course your culture names children in a different way than my culture. I know that in some cultures the parents of the child do not name the child but the name is given in another manner. I guess what I should say is,  if it wasn’t your responsibility to name the child then you don’t get to make any comments on the child’s name. It isn’t your right. You could comment on the name in a positive manner. When people meet me and tell me I have a beautiful name, I like those kinds of people. When I meet people and they wrinkle their nose and ask if I was named after someone, I am very cautious around them. If they can’t even respect your name, can they be trusted? In my experience, usually, no. 

My Name Story

Now, I am a white woman so I have in no way faced the sort of name shaming that minorities have. That is a privilege I have been granted due to being white. People might have been confused by my name but it was still accepted. I never had to justify my name to someone twice. Ever. I would like to make that abundantly clear. Many people have name stories that are much worse than this. 

I have what some might consider a unique name. My name is Natasha Theodora Rice. My parents chose to name me Natasha because they liked the name. They read it in a baby book and connected with it. The name Theodora is a family name. My Great-Aunt was named Theodora. I believe that the name Natasha Theodora has a beautiful ring to it. I am passionately in love with my name. This hasn’t always been the case. 

Growing up I was frequently asked if I was Russian and if I was a ballerina. It didn’t bother me but it always confused me. When I would tell adults my name they would look at me with a confused expression and ask if my family was Russian. I didn’t get it. Now I do. They were trying to find the justification for my name. Why is this little girl from Wisconsin named this Russian name? When I would tell them I wasn’t Russian they would look even more perplexed. At one point my mom must have told me to tell people that my parents liked the name and that is why they chose it. I remember giving this response over and over. I still give this response today. She explained that people could pick any name that felt right to them. My mom constantly pushed me to advocate for myself as a child especially in regards to my name.

My middle name is Theodora. It is a family name. After I would confuse the adults with my first name they usually asked what my middle name was. Maybe they were hoping for a more “normal” middle name. When I told them, I would again see wrinkled foreheads and then, usually, the adult would say Oh, that must be a family name. I would proudly tell them that I was named after my mom’s Aunt Theodora. They didn’t have a lot of questions about that one but I could tell they also didn’t approve. 

My own family didn’t even pronounce my name correctly and still to this day does not. My uncles have always pronounced the Natasha part of my name like ash-uh when it should be pronounced ah-sha… I’m no pro at writing pronunciation guides but the point is that they pronounce it incorrectly. When I was a kid I heard my mom constantly explaining how my name was pronounced and then hearing them sometimes pronounce it correctly with her, only to tell her their pronunciation was good enough. My mom continues this fight to this day, 29 years after I was born. When I was younger, I remember overhearing her tell them that when they pronounce my name incorrectly they are disrespecting who I am as a person. I have taken this lesson to heart. If people are mispronouncing your name it is disrespectful. Everyone deserves to have their name pronounced correctly. 

As a child, I didn’t like my name at all. I learned from the outside world that my name was not on the acceptable name list. Through the constant reactions of the adults I met and my own family members who wouldn’t pronounce my name correctly, I learned that having a different name is not ok. I dreamed of changing my name. For a while, I never wanted to tell people my middle name and sometimes I even joined in as people made fun of it. As I’ve gotten older I have learned to embrace my name. I love it now and I think that it fits me perfectly. 

The lessons my mom taught me have stuck with me. When friends try to pronounce my name incorrectly as a joke, I explain that I don’t think it is funny. It isn’t that I can’t take a joke- something often said to people who take offense at their names being made fun of. My name has been made into a joke too many times by people who don’t respect me. I don’t need the people who love me also joking about it. Most people understand immediately, apologize and stop. Some people find it funny to keep going. I can honestly say that usually, those people seemed to fade out of my life fairly quickly. This my friends was always a red flag for me. 

Names Are Powerful

At my current school, we teach an American curriculum in English. I am once again in the majority at school- even though I am living in Poland and I am not Polish. People in the majority hold the power. How they use it tells a lot about them. I meet people from all over the world with beautiful names that I have never heard before. I ensure that I say every name correctly. I double check my pronunciation to make that I am saying it correctly and that I am respecting and honoring that person. Unfortunately, not everyone does the same.

In Polish the name Anna is pronounced like THIS.  If you click it will be written Ania which is the nickname for Anna and how most Anna’s ask for their name to be pronounced. A teacher at our school started using the American pronunciation. He was corrected several times but didn’t pronounce it correctly. He can pronounce it correctly and does from time to time- he just chooses not to most of the time. Getting real here, you also can pronounce all names correctly. I was once in a meeting with him and a teacher named Katarzyna. Kasia is sometimes a nickname for Katarzyna but this teacher doesn’t go by the nickname. In the meeting, the teacher called her Kasia, Katarzyna, and Katherine. This person Americanized every name. Piotr was Peter. Ania was Anna. Łukasz was Lucas. He refused to call his students the correct names and Americanized them as well.  

This teacher used his pronunciation of names to exert dominance and control. He knew how to pronounce names correctly but chose not to. He was proud of this behavior. A few other Americans noticed this and slowly more and more teachers began pronouncing names incorrectly- even when they knew the correct pronunciation. Fortunately, he has left our school and I hope to hear fewer teachers doing it this year. I will be correcting teachers who do this and, when necessary, explaining why. Names have been used to oppress people all over the world- it shouldn’t happen in schools. We should know better and we should do better.

What to do Instead

  1. Reflect– This isn’t the easiest place to start but I think this is where you must begin your journey. Think about your participation in this event. I know that I have made fun of student names. Like I said earlier, this doesn’t feel good to admit. But I must admit it in order to move forward with better understanding and more awareness. 
  2. Don’t participate– This school year, don’t do it! Don’t look for different names on your class list. Don’t listen as other teachers do it. Walk away. Do not make fun of student names. 
  3. Advocate for change– Just because I stopped doing the behavior doesn’t mean I’ve done my job. I have to advocate for change and educate others. Just this week I was Facetiming with someone from the US. They asked if I get any weird names over here. I explained that we don’t make fun of children’s names anymore. We know that names are extremely cultural so I have kids with names that come from their own culture. I have names I haven’t heard before but I don’t have any weird names. There are no weird names. The person I was talking to was really receptive. He said he didn’t know and what I said made sense. Not everyone will be receptive but we need to make this change. Kids should attend school and feel respected. This starts with correct name pronunciation.  
 

A Quick Word on Nicknames

You should not be giving your students nicknames. You need to call them by the name they ask you to use. If her name is Mary Elizabeth and she asks you to use Mary Elizabeth don’t just call her Mary. If his name is Matthew and he wants to be called Matthew don’t call him Matt or Matty. Sometimes people give nicknames to show love or kindness or friendship but unless the child has asked you to use a nickname. You probably shouldn’t. Especially with elementary kids.

If you start using a nickname some students might not feel comfortable to ask you to stop using the nickname due to the teacher/student power dynamic. I would never have asked a teacher to stop calling me by a nickname. Sometimes I didn’t even correct them if they called me Natalie. 

Please leave a note in the comments. Share your name story, questions you have, advice, comments… whatever it is that you want to share with me. I would love to hear from you! 

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