Making name pronunciation a priority in K12 education
Some students grow so accustomed to hearing their names mispronounced over and over again that they no longer correct the people who make the mistakes.
And sometimes, these children just give up and adopt unwanted nicknames they have been given by classmates, coaches or educators.
“To walk around in a space that is supposed to be designed for you to feel welcome and safe and to be who you are, and know that every day someone is mispronouncing your name, is emotionally exhausting,” says Tiffany Young, the equity and diversity coordinator for the Washoe County School District in Nevada.
To rectify the problem, some districts have made name pronunciation a priority, and have encouraged administrators and teachers to spend more time learning names of both staff and students.
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In some cases, this involves adopting a new set of best practices, such as the resources offered by the California-based My Name, My Identity campaign. In other cases, teachers simply have to be more focused the first few times they take attendance.
Mispronouncing names repeatedly, particularly those of minority students, can be seen as not only disrespectful, but also discriminatory, Young says.
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“We say to teachers, ‘Once you get your roll list, do you make any assumptions about kids based on the spelling of their names? Do you check any biases at the door?’” she says. “We tell them they have to understand that cultural competency requires some humility.”
Teachers will inevitably find some names hard to pronounce on the first day of school. But mastering the various methods of learning to say them correctly is not complicated, says Yee Wan, director of multilingual learning services at the Santa Clara County Office of Education. The California agency worked with the National Association for Bilingual Education to develop the My Name, My Identity campaign.
Teachers can greet students at the door on the first few days of school and ask them to say their names. Teachers should then repeat each name, and ask if they are saying it correctly, Wan says.
“One of the best ways to connect with students on a personal level is when students enter the classroom,” she says.
A teacher who struggles repeatedly with a name should not do so during roll call, but should practice the name with the student one-on-one.
In early grades, teachers leading morning circle meetings can sing the names of students so their classmates can also learn correct pronunciations. Teachers also can assign a project in which each student delivers a presentation about the origin, meaning and cultural history behind their name. Principals can conduct the same activities with their teachers and staff, Wan adds.
“It sends a very important message—that your name and your identity matter, and we want to get it right,” she says. “It says, ‘We want to get to know you, and we respect you.’”
The My Name, My Identity website (mynamemyidentity.org) offers more resources on name pronunciation and global competency—including a pledge that districts, schools and individuals can take to commit to proper name pronunciation.
“It’s about being able to communicate effectively with each other and really understanding each other’s perspectives,” Wan says.
Eliminating ‘implicit bias’
Washoe County School District, a majority-minority district, took the My Name, My Identity pledge in 2016. “Giving a child a nickname because it’s more comfortable for a teacher is not OK,” Young adds. “Not working intentionally to pronounce a student’s name is not OK.”
The cultural competency PD provided by Young’s equity and diversity department attempts to make teachers and educators aware of their own “implicit bias”—or the deeply ingrained assumptions that they might have made about people from certain ethnic backgrounds.
Teachers are encouraged to write out names phonetically and apologize when they mispronounce names. Teachers also should ask students what they are called at home. Consequently, a growing number of the district’s teachers now spend more time learning names when they get their attendance lists before classes start.
Families have commended the district’s educators and administrators for spending more time trying to learn students’ names. This, in turn, empowers families to get more involved and speak out on district issues, Young says.
“You can’t say you have a relationship with someone if you haven’t genuinely and intentionally tried to get to know them,” Young adds.
When teachers get their class lists for the new year, they can type names into a handful of websites—such as Voice of America—that offer guidance on pronunciation, says Punita Chhabra Rice, a teacher and founder of Improving South Asian American Students’ Experiences, an advocacy organization.
Teachers can also reach out to colleagues who may be familiar with certain names. Or they can use a projector to display class lists on a screen, and ask each student to pronounce their name and have their classmates practice it, too, says Rice, who presents on inclusiveness and tolerance at schools around the country.
“Your name is your identity, and if it’s tied to your culture and your family history, then it’s really important,” says Rice, who admits that as a student, she changed her first name because people often mispronounced it.
Name pronunciation can also become a part of the curriculum. English teachers, for example, should assign books not set in the United States or written by Americans. This will expose the entire class to more diverse names.
Rice says she knows a math teacher who picks diverse names for word problems. “It’s a way for students to see themselves reflected in the classroom,” she says.
Perhaps one of the most important moments for pronunciation is high school graduation. Some schools have created phone lines so students can call in and record the correct pronunciation of their names. “Mispronouncing names can have the same impact you see with any kind of racial microaggression,” Rice says.
“It chips away at a person’s sense of feeling accepted. If someone is already feeling isolated because of their heritage, it can feel like an attack.”
Joseph and Esmeralda
Rice has worked with Maryland’s Howard County Public School System, where she did a presentation for the district’s international student and family services department. The department helps newly arrived families register and also finds translators, among other services.
“If you know how to say ‘Joseph,’ why can’t you learn to say ‘Esmeralda’ correctly,” says Min Woo, a department specialist. “We talk a lot more now about how students feel in their schools when they’re not of the dominant culture, whether or not they were born here.”
The manner in which a school official asks a family or student how to pronounce a name also has an impact, Woo adds.
“Your tone, your expression, your body language—that transmits whether you’re coming from a place where you truly value that person,” she says. “If you call home and ask a parent to speak to a student and you butcher the name, you’ve already painted an unflattering picture of yourself.”
Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.