Your students may not know who they are. Are you to blame?

woman-questionmarkSuzy worked at a bank. She was a teller and a favorite among the regular customers because of her sharp wit and quirky style. Her name placard said Suzy, but that wasn’t her given name. Suzy, a Japanese woman who had lived in the US for almost 20 years, was actually Yasue (YAH-sue-eh), but it didn’t take long before she got tired of the mispronunciations and having to correct strangers. It was easier to choose an anglicized nickname than to enculturate others. It was certainly annoying that Americans generally couldn’t get it right, but the people close to her had no trouble, so that was some consolation.

Yasue was an adult, with an identity firmly in place, when she chose to be called Suzy. But many immigrant and refugee children face challenges with their names when they come to the US. In fact, the first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names.

Names are misspelled and mispronounced, and students (and parents) may not speak up to correct them. They may not be familiar with how naming practices differ in the US, for example, if their native language does not use last names, as in Burmese, or if family names rather than given names come first, as in Chinese. For students from Spanish-speaking countries, where both the father and mother’s last name are used (in that order), I’ve seen every possible variation, from hyphen, no hyphen, reversal, making the father’s name a middle name and retaining the mother’s name, or choosing the father’s name and dropping the mother’s (which matches US practice, but feels inequitable if both names are customarily used).

Students may not speak up to fix name errors out of politeness to authority figures. They may want to be viewed favorably by their teacher, or may not want to call attention to themselves. Thus, it’s up to school personnel to earnestly verify name spellings and pronunciation. Names are part and parcel with identity, and often have beautiful meanings.

Straight out of college, I taught a young woman named Aknabat, from Uzbekistan. When I went home that first day, I joked with my husband that her name sounded like a Pokemon character, or a transformer. (“Aknabat! Destroy!”) But when I asked her the meaning of her name the next day, she shyly said that it meant ‘white sugar.’ What could be more humble, pure, clean, or sweet than white sugar? It suited her perfectly. Talk about a lesson in cultural sensitivity for me.

Alienating people from their names via misspellings or bad pronunciation is alienating them from themselves, their families, their languages, and their cultures. If you are one of the earnest folk and make a point of getting student names right, you’re already moving our society toward acceptance and understanding. If you, like me, joke about class rosters before getting to know the people attached to those names, I hope you’ll think twice, and turn it back on yourself.

I personally go by Mah-REE-sah, not Mah-RIH-sah, and have been dutifully correcting little church ladies since I was a child. If I moved to a new country, where people permanently mispronounced my name, I would feel completely disregarded as a human being. As teachers and watchdogs for minority students, let’s not allow that disregard be standard operating practice.

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