by Dawn Casey-Rowe
Ernie Terrell didn’t get Muhammad Ali’s name right. Terrell repeatedly called Ali by his former name, Cassius Clay, in the days leading up to their 1967 heavyweight fight. He even sang a song using Ali’s birth name on Hollywood Squares, something that pushed Ali over the edge.
Ali took this personally, telling announcer Howard Cosell that Terrell would announce Ali’s Muslim name publicly at the press conference, or in the center of the ring after Ali defeated him in the fight. Ali won the fifteen-round contest, peppering Terrell with shot after shot after shouting, “What’s my name?” It’s what most boxing lovers remember about Terrell–that he didn’t get Ali’s name right.
The First Days Of School
It’s the first day of school. Six periods of twenty to thirty kids are about to march in my room and stare me down. Most of them tell me they hate school–I always ask. It’s my job, in the first couple minutes of class, to make them realize they will not. It’s a combination of caring, marketing, and teaching.
I welcome students. I introduce myself. My name is on the board. Their names are not. I’ve got a lot to memorize.
I had a professor in college who always knew names. He was famous for this. I thought he had superhuman powers. I was nothing special in his class. Though his class was one of the most influential I ever took, I wasn’t majoring in his area. Still, he’d remember my name far into the future. He knew all of our names, almost instantly, like magic. That was important to me. That lesson stuck.
Building relationships is important in education–and in life. We go the extra mile for people we know and like — it’s human nature. Learning a name, pronouncing it right, and matching the right name with the right kid is critical–it’s the first courtesy we extend to our students. The quicker we learn the names the more each kid knows we care.
It’s not only important for teachers to learn student names, it’s important for kids to learn each other’s names as well. I want students to know each other and to feel comfortable working together. Community matters, and learning names is the first block in community building.
One thing I hate is “roll call.” If I have to call out attendance every day, I do not know my kids, and they know I don’t. I want to be able to scan through the room almost instantly and know who’s in class. I want to know each name by day one or two, a personal detail by the end of the second or third class, and have a solid community structure in place by the end of the first week.
I never want students to feel I don’t know them. It all starts with a name.
Here are some strategies and activities use to remember names quickly so I can move on to the next things–building community and teaching valuable lessons.
6 Strategies For Teachers To Learn Student Names Quickly
1. Start with introductions.
Some experts feel introductions put kids on the spot. They do, but so does life–that’s something I’m honest about. I make introductions and public speaking a day-one skill, telling students it’s a money-making skill–a gift I plan to give them even if they aren’t comfortable speaking right now. They always thank me later. I give a reward: “Introduce yourself. You get 100 on your first quiz, and all you have to do is get your name right.” I work hard to learn a few names during this activity. I tell an amusing story or two about myself to put the class at ease.
2. Ask students to complete info sheets.
I’m working toward paperless, but for this activity, I use a paper form. It has basic student info, and a couple questions about things they like, how they feel about school, plans for life. It’s just enough information for me to use, but I also walk around peeking at their names and memorizing the first few. I collect the papers personally from each student, studying names in the process and associating some of the info with the names. As I collect papers, I have a brief side conversation with each student. This helps me learn names and connect with students.
3. Make it a game.
I have some rewards on hand. The first person to get all of our names correctly gets a prize. Someone will usually have all the names down, but as the contest progresses, we get to hear the names over and over. We’re secretly trying to win in our minds–a case of healthy competition helping to build the community.
4. Use names when possible.
I make it a point to speak with everyone individually during the course of each class, and I use names when possible. Truth is, there are always a few names I don’t get the first time around, but if I’m using names constantly, it seems like I know them all–to the students. That buys me the time I need to work hard and learn each and every one.
5. Shuffle kids around.
I quiz myself constantly during the first days of school. I say the names in my mind as the kids come in, leave, and get off busses. It’s easy to memorize kids’ names when they’re in assigned seats, but I don’t have assigned seats. As soon as students move, change styles or don’t have that red soccer shirt on… Do I still know the names? That’s the challenge. When I know names in any setting–then I’ve done my homework well.
6. Have kids create something.
Author Dave Burgess suggests a first-day activity involving Play Doh in his bestseller “Teach Like a Pirate.” This is a fun activity, I’ve tried it. I do something different every year. This year, I’m having kids find and create mini quote posters and personal goal infographics. I’ll use them for decorating the room, and refer to them for inspiration. While they’re going crazy with the research and Sharpies, I’ll have down time to talk to each student, which helps me connect and learn names quickly.
The best way to get off to a good start to the school year is by taking enough time to learn students’ names and build a positive classroom community. So many of us feel rushed to dive into the curriculum, but taking a quick beginning of the year pause to organize, learn names, and build community pays off in amazing results throughout the year!
Dawn Casey-Rowe is a teacher and author. Her book, “Don’t Sniff the Glue: A Teacher’s Misadventures in Education Reform” talks about what really goes on in the classroom, including the first day of school.
6 Strategies For Teachers To Learn Student Names Quickly