In this piece Nathan Palmer discusses how students having their names mispronounced by their teachers can affect their learning and academic success.
What makes Key and Peele so funny is how they turn racial privilege inside out. Middle-class white students rarely have to endure the indignity of having their names mispronounced. With 81.9% of all teachers identifying as white, these students can walk in on the first day of class and expect to be educated by someone who shares a similar cultural background. The pronunciation of a students name may, at first glance, seem trivial, but a growing body of research suggests that it is anything but.
Names Matter, So Get Them Right
Names are important. Your name is one of the first words you learn as a baby. Parents name their children to pass on their family’s culture, to honor loved ones, or to carry on family traditions. Our name is a central part of our identity and naming customs are a central part of any culture.
Schools are one place where names matter a lot. As Kohli and Solórzano (2012) found in their research many students with uncommon or non-anglo names are forced to suffer the indignity of having their names butchered by teachers over and over again. Worse yet, teachers often laugh off their inability to pronounce their students’ names, or they ask the student if they have a nickname that is easier for the teacher to pronounce.
Take for example Carmen Fariña, a native-Spanish speaker, who was marked as absent for weeks in her kindergarten class because she didn’t raise her hand when her teacher mispronounced her name during roll call. Fariña, who today serves as the chancellor of New York City schools, said in a keynote address to the National Association for Bilingual Education, “mispronouncing a student’s name essentially renders that student invisible.”
When students feel invisible their education suffers. Students who were born outside the United States leave high school before graduating at a rate that is more than twice that of their U.S. born peers (NCES 2016). Related research suggests that when students are taught by educators of the same racial/ethnic background their performance on standardized tests of learning are improved (Egalite, Kisida, and Winters 2015), however, this effect varies by the race of the teacher, the student, and by characteristics of the school (McGrady and Reynolds 2013). Given that 81.9% of all K–12 teachers are white, many minority students never have the opportunity to experience these benefits.
My Name, My Identity
My Name, My Identity is a national campaign imploring educators to respect their students’ names and do whatever it takes to learn to pronounce them correctly. The campaign was created by the Santa Clara County Office of Education and its Multilingual Education Services team. On their campaign website, you can take the pledge to show respect for others’ names and cultural identities inside the classroom and beyond.
Everyone in the classroom can work to ensure that every student feels respected and integrated into the learning community. As a teacher, I can address this issue by never laughing off my inability to pronounce a student’s name. When I struggle with a student’s name, I can avoid putting them on the spot by pulling them aside to learn how to say their name right. More broadly, I can educate myself on the limits of my understanding of other cultures and work to expand them over time.
If you are a student, you can show your classmates respect by learning their names. If your teacher struggles with a classmate’s name, don’t laugh. Let your classmates know that you don’t think it’s funny.
Addressing this one issue will not eradicate educational inequality, but it is a good place to start. Learning someone’s name is a simple act, but it can have a profound impact.
- What is the story behind your name? Describe how your family selected your name(s).
- Have you ever had a teacher who didn’t share your cultural background? What cross-cultural issues, if any, did you experience?
- Could you see some possible benefits to being educated by someone who was from a cultural background different from yours? If so, what learning opportunities do you think that white students may be missing out on because of the overrepresentation of white Americans in the teacher pool?
- Sociologists are keen on saying that social privilege is often invisible to those who have it. How could having your teacher pronounce your name correctly be an example of this?
- Egalite, Anna J., Brian Kisida, and Marcus A. Winters. 2015. “Representation in the Classroom: The Effect of Own-Race Teachers on Student Achievement.” Economics of Education Review 45:44–52.
- Kohli, Rita and Daniel G. Solórzano. 2012. “Teachers, Please Learn Our Names!: Racial Microagressions and the K–12 Classroom.” Race Ethnicity and Education 15(4):441–62.
- McGrady, Patrick B. and John R. Reynolds. 2013. “Racial Mismatch in the Classroom Beyond Black-White Differences.” Sociology of Education 86(1):3–17.