Winning the student name game can be a struggle

8th September 2017 at 00:00
If you forget a student's name, there's a danger they'll think you don't care – so it might be best to warn them from the off that you could slip up

I have a rubbish memory. If I go to Tesco without a list, I could leave with almost anything, I’m a martyr to the siren song of a BOGOF. I’ve been doing my weekly shop online for years, to avoid coming home with a car boot full of crap we neither need nor want.

My long-term memory’s just as bad. Pals from my drama-school days divulge japes of which I have absolutely no recollection. I wish I could remember clambering atop a bar table to give a rousing speech about LGBT rights, after some random div homophobed my mate. Or, the final audition for a new musical, when I forgot the words to the cock-er-nee-style song they’d sent me. I’m told I stood alone centre stage at The Palladium, repeatedly booming “Come on everybody!” in my best Dick Van Dyke impression at a stunned panel of West End money men. The only memory I have of that episode is my friend laughing so hard that the Mars bar he was eating shot out of his nose. Oh, and not getting the job.

There is, however, a strange quirk of recall inside my otherwise soup-like grey(ing) matter. I can remember a roomful of students’ names like there’s a cash-prize involved. Every teacher I know has their own special strategy for matching mugs to monikers.

In the first session, I usually get students to interview each other, then we go round the room and they introduce their partner, offering one thing they’ve learned about them. The introduced student then repeats their name and that fact. For some reason, this kicks down my brain doors.

Staff names don't stick

I’ve worked in some places for years without fully grasping who everyone rattling round the staff room is. Not out of purposeful ignorance – the words just won’t settle. It’s as if there’s only capacity in my head to retain the information with the highest stakes attached: the students’ names.

The inequality of status in the student-teacher relationship can add a weight of unintentional meaning to forgetting a student’s name. “You don’t know my name, therefore you don’t care about me.” “My identity doesn’t matter to you.” “You have rejected me, so I will reject you.” Actually, the truth is that you’ve temporarily forgotten it because your kid couldn’t find their PE top that morning, so you set off late, hit the heavy traffic coming into work and didn’t have time for a coffee.

No matter how much a student signals that they don’t care what we think, we know from their reaction to praise that they do. The need for approval we all have from our parents, or from our roles acting in loco parentis, still looms large.

Perhaps the most sensible way to avoid students deriving any false link between a teacher-memory slip-up is to tell the group that you might forget their names at first, but it doesn’t mean you don’t care. It means you sometimes struggle to take in a load of names in one go. Or, call them all Sir and Madam. They like that.


Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands, and is the director of UKFEchat. She tweets @MrsSarahSimons

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