A new boy shows up at school. As he walks through the classroom door, the teacher welcomes him by saying, "Tell us your name."
The boy, who has just moved to America from the Philippines, announces his name as Banoy Pamatmat. Whereupon the teacher asks, "Could you repeat that?"
Welcome to an increasingly common scenario in today's schools.
As more immigrants relocate to America, educators encounter a wider array of new names and faces. And many of those names are challenging to pronounce.
What's In a Name? A Lot
It turns out that the significance of a name goes way beyond just its pronunciation. Social science suggests that one's name may impact future career and life success after school.
For instance, a 2011 study by New York University linked easy-to-pronounce names with a higher number of friendships at school, a greater chance of being hired by employers--even higher earnings at work.
Conversely, the more difficult the name's pronunciation and/or length, the greater its owner's chances of academic difficulty--possibly even criminal behavior down the line. While some might view these scenarios as stereotypical overgeneralizations, they still represent real trends.
Of course, there are many persons whose successes came despite their unusual names.
Think of President Barack Hussein Obama, who once quipped: "I got my middle name from somebody who obviously didn't think that I'd run for President."
Similar comments might easily come from other public figures. Think of Oscar-winning actress Gabourey Sidibe, whose name and persona also reflect a proud African heritage.
Or Jad Abumrad, Lebanese-American radio personality and co-host of the wildly popular Radiolab on NPR.
The fact is, success can happen to anyone, regardless of name or ethnicity. Still, it's likely that a public figure with an unusual name has had to challenge a lot of assumptions. And they probably had to pronounce their names a lot, too.
My Name, My Identity
Each person's name is more than a collection of letters and phonemes. Names symbolize one's entire identity.
According to the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE), a simple mispronunciation can lead to student anxiety, insecurity in the classroom, and--in some cases--hindered academic growth.
These concerns aren't difficult to imagine. After all, no one enjoys hearing his or her name mispronounced. At best, such an error is a minor irritant. At worst, it's a sign of disrespect.
On the flip side, hearing one's name pronounced correctly can inspire feelings of self worth and confidence. When teachers and classmates say a name exactly as a given student would say it, the entire class benefits--socially and academically.
These benefits underlie the My Name, My Identity campaign co-sponsored by NABE, McGraw-Hill, and other educational partners. The campaign's goal is to build a positive culture at school by promoting respect to students, their families, and their cultures.
With this goal in mind, teachers, schools, parents, and other like-minded individuals pledge to pronounce each student's name correctly and celebrate diversity by building respect and caring.
We encourage our readers to make a pledge by clicking the link shown above.
Strategies for Success
Once educators pledge to pronounce students' names correctly, what's next?
Sometimes it's all a teacher can manage just to take a bathroom break during the day--never mind have time to pore over a class list or worry about a pronunciation gaffe. We all live in the real world here.
First of all, no one expects every educator to be a seasoned linguist.
However, the following strategies can help ensure success when encountering new students and unusual names in the classroom:
- Home visits - True, not every teacher has time or energy for home visits. But if time allows, such visits can fill in the gaps, cementing not just name pronunciations but also student/teacher/parent relationships.
- Teacher collaboration - Welcoming a new group of third-graders to your class? Make sure to ask your students' former second-grade teacher for assistance on tricky names.
- Good timing - Whenever possible, inquire about new students' names one-on-one; asking children to announce their names in front of the entire class can be intimidating.
- Sincere interest - Students can sense a teacher's genuine interest. Even asking "what does your name mean?" can show curiosity and interest. So can complimenting the unique sound of the name or its cultural background. Always ask if a child prefers a shortened version of his/her name; don't create a nickname just to make it easier on yourself!
- Role models - Ask children whom they most admire (and why). Find opportunities to introduce a wide array of cultural role models in class (perhaps those with similar names or backgrounds to the students themselves).
- Anti-bullying - Even if your school has an anti-bullying strategy, establish additional policies within class. These policies can include teaching all children how to say classmates' names correctly, even rewarding them for doing so.
- Following up - Without bringing undue attention to shy students, find ways to reinforce respect for each student's culture by planning activities or teaching units about the meaning of names around the world. Willing students may wish to tell the story behind their names.
Imagine Learning believes every student deserves the chance to truly be him or herself. Every time teachers pronounce a student's name correctly, they help students feel confident in their identities, making school a better experience for all.
Do you have an interesting name story? Please share your experiences at the My Name, My Identity website shown above or in the comments below. And please--take the pledge!