I am, according to many measurements, a really good teacher in the classroom. I didn’t receive ONE negative evaluation this past semester, which has never actually happened to me (there is always one who I don’t connect with and they let me know). My teaching evaluations have always been very strong, as have my peer evaluations. As many of my students’ wrote, I clearly care about them and their education. My heart melted when one of my students (who is studying to be a teacher) that I was now her professional role model.
I have one very large shortcoming. I can’t learn students’ names. After fifteen weeks of handing assignments back, class discussions, emails, and meetings, I might know half of the students’ names. And it’s usually the ones who have either dropped or about to fail. When I hand back their assignments and I have the name in front of me, by about the middle of the semester I can usually remember the face. The same goes for emails. But without the name in front of me, when I look at the face, I can remember everything about the student (whatever details they’ve shared about themselves, their last free write response, what they’ve missed, their major, their career aspirations) except their name.
Learning the students’ names is the first thing they teach you in courses or seminars designed to improve your pedagogical skill and classroom presence; in fact my chair, in our new faculty orientation, said exactly that. If you want to make a meaningful connection with your students’, learn their names. If you want the students’ to be engaged with you, learn their names. The way other professors or facilitators talk about it, knowing you’re students’ name is the single most important thing you can do; everything else is gravy.
This has been a problem for me since, well, forever. I would forget my new teammates’ names for the first three months of the swimming season. When I started teaching swimming lessons, I couldn’t remember the names of the six kids in my class; worse, I would think that their name was something that it wasn’t, and then that’s the name that would stick in my brain. Word to the wise, don’t call a 6 year-old by the wrong name; they really, really don’t like it. I’ve tried everything: looking at pictures, having name tags for them, taking pictures with their name tags, memory games based on associations, everything. And every semester, I do no better than about 50%. Worse, by the beginning of the next semester, I’ve forgotten half of the half.
I admit this shortcoming to my students early and often in the semester, and it becomes a sort of running joke. Some days they’ll decide not to raise their hands when I call their name to pass a piece of writing back, just to see if I’ve finally learned who they are. The thing that they realize very quickly, however, is that I really do know who they are: I remember any and every other detail they’ve shared with me inside and outside of the classroom the moment I see their faces. They also know that I will remember those details for a long, long time. Names are only one small way we can know someone, really.
Knowing their name is important, no doubt, but it’s only one small way to know my students. I learn everything else instead. Doesn’t mean I don’t still try; just means that I make sure that my strengths far outweigh one of my more glaring weaknesses.