When teachers get kids’ names wrong in class, the children react in one of two ways. They may politely correct their teacher and explain how they would like to be called.
That is what young Hollywood actress, “Quvenzhané Wallis” (kwah-venn-zha-ney wa-lis) smartly did when a reporter got her name wrong.
Unfortunately, like most kids, they may shrug it off and agree to be called a nickname. Sadly, what kids – and often their teachers – don’t realize is that nicknames could have a lasting effect on how they feel about themselves. It could even affect their participation in class.
What’s in a name? More than we realize.
What’s in a Name? The Kids do not Mind Sobriquets
A child’s name is – or should be – important to them. It is their cultural identity. An individual’s name is a part of who they are. Many kids are named after members of their family, or after loved ones who are close to the family. A name is more than a handle; it is an identification that carries with it an individual’s history.
When teachers distort a child’s name, she is, in effect, negating the child’s history and identity.
A child may prefer to be called William, and not Billy. It is up to them to let the teacher know this, but it is also necessary for the teacher to ask if it is okay to call them something else. A child is not? Gerzelda’ if her name is Mary Gerzel, just because her teacher cannot be bothered to remember all the Marys in his class.
Some may say that nicknames are coined in fun. In fact, some kids feel it is a singling out that makes them feel special.
However, very often kids do not like the nicknames they are given, yet are too timid to stand up and say so. Teachers can look in forums across the Internet for proof of this. Googling the phrase, “my teacher gave me a nickname” reveals the uncertainty that kids feel when they are assigned a nickname. The fact that kids feel the need to ask their peers about the ethics of nicknaming implies their discomfort at the practice.
Responses like nicknames are annoying’ are common on these forums. However, unfortunately, few of these responders may correct adults in class when their names are pronounced wrong or when they are given monikers that make them uncomfortable.
There could be many reasons for this. As one Denver teacher, who blogs by the name of Shakespeare’s Sister, points out, children of color from underprivileged families may have become too used to being treated like the other’.
Nicknames Build Bonds and Identities – They Also Alienate.
It is not just teachers who have nicknames for kids in class. Groups of students do it all the time. New terms with new faces bring challenges to kids who want to fit in. Cliques start to form, and by the time the teacher has memorized the names on the roster, monikers may already be flying around the class. Nicknames seem to be a way of creating bonding in a group, as well as individual identity.
Sometimes these nicknames are affectionate. A shortening of proper names, for instance, is common. A boy named Harrison may be affectionately called Harry, and he may not mind it. However, often, kids are called derogatory names that stick with them for the rest of the school term.
When teachers do not intervene or teach children respect for their names and those of others, it can have consequences.
One of the biggest problems with nicknames is that while they may seem inoffensive or fun sometimes, giving nicknames is a form of labeling. A nickname puts an individual in a box. This “box” is commonly defined by their physical traits – skin color, facial appearance, figure – or their abilities (or lack of).
Positive tags about abilities may have a positive effect. However, it is all too common to hear derogatory terms that are meant to ridicule, demean or scorn the bearer of the sobriquet. This could build up a wall between the child and others, and in effect, make them invisible in class.
What kids call each other – or allow themselves to be called – defines what they think of themselves and how they behave.
Their name, on the other hand, is their identity. It does not completely describe who they are, but it does say a lot about where they are from, their family and their cultural background. This is particularly the case of kids who belong to immigrant families or other cultures.
When teachers take the trouble to pronounce a student’s name accurately, they set an example for other kids. Our schools are increasingly becoming multicultural institutions, and classrooms are a slice of the global world. It is no wonder then that campaigns, Unfortunately, “My Name, My Identity” is gaining ground across the country, and mispronouncing a student’s name is being seen as a form of ‘microaggression’.
The Trouble with Misters and Misses:
In light of the confusion about what to call kids in class, it is not surprising that there have been camps proposing that teachers use Mister/Sir or Miss/Misses in class, to seem professional. Some students feel uncomfortable being called by their surnames or by their first names when they are not on first name basis with their teachers or professors.
The arguments for this proposal are that it would help kids keep their self-respect and maintain the formality and order of school. These formal terms could contribute to creating respectful boundaries that either party would not cross.
On the other hand, critics say that it could make school more stressful for kids, over and above academic pressures and the pressures to achieve.
While it is tough to argue against the reasons for formal, proper names, official names bring with it a whole new wasp’s nest of political correctness. With more kids coming out and identifying with non-binary identities, Mr./Sir and Miss/Misses are not inclusive enough.
It seems to be in the best interests of students and the class as a whole that educators go the way of the Ivy League schools, and give students a choice to decide what they want to be called. Harvard is allowing students to pick new gender pronouns when they fill out their forms, like gender-neutral, they’, them’ or theirs.’
Educators may want to introduce similar forms at the start of each class, where students are asked what name they would like to be called. While a certain amount of non-uniformity is likely to creep in and make the educator’s work a little more challenging, a teacher’s effort to give students the right to choose their name will set a good example in class. What’s in a name, if not a person’s identity and choice? Equal rights and respect for all – that is what education is about, is it not?