Heading into a new school year, I love being able to go back to basics. One of my favourite parts of back to school has always been looking at my class lists. Seeing which students will be walking into my classroom on the first day, and thinking of ways to nurture relationships and establish classroom culture, brings me so much joy. There is just so much excitement in the idea of getting to know a new group of young people and imagining learning possibilities.
Labelling folders for each student, setting up learning groups, designing strengths-based learning and teaching; all of this begins to develop out of those class lists.
And then, I sit with the lists.
I read the names of those students, and I pray for each one. This small action allows me to familiarise myself with their names, their identity, their place of belonging and their purpose. When I meet those students for the first time, their names have already left my mouth and been lifted up to God in prayer as a way of starting our relationship together.
This first step in connecting with my students by name is also a step in connecting them to each other and their role in God’s story. This seemingly small action helps students begin to feel seen, known and valued.
The names of our students are potentially the most significant thing we can know about them, and one of the most significant parts of their relationship with God. In Isaiah 43:1, we hear God command Israel to “fear not.” The reassurance behind this command is that “[God] has called you by name.” Our names are a reflection of our identities formed in Christ and of the way in which we connect to God, talk with God, and are called back to God. The more we honour our students by using their names, the more we glorify God and the identity God has gifted each of them in God’s own reflection. As Christian educators we hold a deep responsibility for affirming the value of each of our students as made in the image of God.
How can we be intentional about honouring our students by name?
When we take the time to learn how to pronounce each student’s name correctly, we honour the authentic intent of their name. To do this well, it may mean having a quiet conversation with a student ahead of the first class, or asking each student to introduce themselves on the first day as we take attendance. Unintentionally changing the pronunciation of a student’s name can change the meaning of a name completely, especially those names that are deeply seeded in a cultural context, family connection or language. In my own classroom, I take care not to anglicize names because it feels easier, or because I may feel self-conscious about pronunciation. Work with the student to get it right. This effort goes a long way. When a student is indifferent about how their name is pronounced, it is often a result of years of mispronunciation.
Students whose names hold cultural significance should feel honoured and valued as part of learning communities. Take the time to understand a student’s cultural background by connecting with them 1:1. Find out the depth of their connection to their culture, ethnicity or heritage as a way of responding to them as image bearers. If reading out a class role, or calling on a student, we can be careful not to inadvertently make fun of a student’s name by changing intonation, the way the syllables fall, rhyming their name with something unrelated, etc. Classrooms need to be safe places for students to rest in their identity in Christ, and that includes the uniqueness of their culture.
A note about International Students: There is a trend with international students to choose “English” or “Americanized” names. There’s a misconception that this will allow them to fit in, blend in, and succeed in a new place and culture. Names are identity. I would encourage staff who work with their international student community to have meaningful conversations about names, the use of birth names, and the reasons why students might feel they can’t/don’t want to use their given name. The onus should not fall on students to change their name, but on staff to take time to learn to pronounce those names and use them correctly. Modelling for all students in our school buildings the way we honour each other is an essential part of creating school culture and reflecting God’s presence.
What is the impact of a nickname? Growing up in small towns, I learned how easy it was for someone to gain a nickname as a young child and have that nickname follow them through school. For some students this is fun and makes them feel special. However, for other students this can be a painful experience that they don’t know how to change. Allowing students the opportunity at the beginning of each year to let you know what they want to be called empowers them to own their identity in the classroom and in Christ. As the adults in the room, it’s important that we don’t follow suit with student nicknames without the explicit permission of the student affected. It is also our role to call out the use of nicknames to ensure each student feels safe and able to learn.
Our names are formative to our identity in Christ, in how we connect with God and in how we feel called by God. Honouring the names of our students allows for student agency in relationships, deeper engagement in learning and supported self-reflection as image bearers.
What steps can you take in this back-to-school season to honour your students and help them live into their names?
God calls us by name; we belong to God.