Identity crisis

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Forgetting your pupils' names could land you in all sorts of trouble, writes Mike Fielding, who suggests ways of avoiding the problem.

The child looks up. "Right, Darren", you say, "let's see what you've done. " "Robert, Miss. It's Robert, " he sighs. "That's Darren over there." Another rich and potentially enlivening relationship has hit the buffers. You've committed the child's cardinal sin of not knowing what he's called.

It's not even that Darren and Robert look alike. It's just that, somehow, they've got mixed up in your mind and you can't untangle them. You can suffer the same "I wish the earth would open" moment when a girl greets you in the corridor. "Ah. . . is she Tracy or Helen?" you muse frantically and then settle for the unimaginative "Oh, hello there."

Parents' evenings can be worse. "Jackie's" with her parents and you are well launched into your paeon of praise before mother leans forward and says gently: "She's not Jackie, it's our Moira."

The problem of names comes from the large numbers of children most secondary school teachers confront in a week. But apart from the affront to the individual's dignity and what it says about how untrustworthy you are, being vague about names has other dangers. Writing reports can be a nightmare without photographs in front of you. Talking about children to other staff can create confusion if you're not sure who's who. And keeping control can be impossible if everyone is called "You !" No longer is it possible to emulate the woodwork teacher who after repeatedly calling "Smith don't do that" and being ignored hurled a board rubber at the offending child. "I told you not to do that, Smith" he roared. "But Sir", replied the boy, "my names not Smith." "If I say you're Smith, then you're Smith," came the retort.

Today's children, quite rightly, won't stand for that kind of dictatorialism - quite apart from the illegality of despatching missiles at their heads. They want the respect you demand of them to be reciprocated, at least to the extent of knowing who they are.

Some teachers find this very difficult and well into a term will be getting names wrong or resorting to strategies for hiding the fact that they don't know their children.

New teachers, of course, are allowed to get away with it for a short time but worrying about your ability to name your classes simply adds to the stress of early days in the job. Much better to develop and practise ways of ensuring you can unerringly name everyone you teach.

Different methods work for different people: some use mnemonics "sits at the back, must be Jack", others alliteration "spotty Susie", "lively Leonard". The problem with either of these is if you forget the clue you've lost the name as well.

There's no real substitute for working at it. I always start off a new group by very deliberately learning their names before we do anything else. Because they think it's a game the children will help me and are very impressed when, at the end of the lesson, I can put the right name to everyone. But it needs follow up. If a child asks a question or makes a statement I get them to say their name. If someone speaks to me outside class I always ask his or her name and I deliberately test my recall when I meet children in unfamiliar situations.

Where it is practical, some teachers make name cards for each of their classes and put one in front of each child. Children can also wear name badges. They can be seated in register or mark-book order or alphabetically where this is different.

In most schools now children are referred to by first name but this creates another potential pitfall: you can tell Penny from Jane but which is Brown and which Jones? And this is probably even more difficult in multi-racial schools where the organisation of some children's names can be quite complicated.

Then, of course, there are twins - or occasionally triplets. They go through life having people apologise for mixing them up, and very irritating it can be, especially when it's a teacher they see frequently. It pays to work out ways of distinguishing apparently identical twins, first because they will appreciate it and second so that you can't be fooled into believing one is the other.

Finally, you have the parents. Increasingly they can have different surnames from their children. When "How nice to see you Mrs X" is greeted with "Actually it's Mrs Y, I'm not married to John's father any more", it's not a very propitious beginning to a parent consultation especially if you have difficult things to say about the child.

While, as we know, a rose would smell as sweet whatever its name, a child will usually only respond to one. And good teachers will make sure to get it right, particularly those who dislike "Miss" or "Sir" and prefer their own name to be used. "Yes, Miss Nightingale," doesn't have the same respectful ring if you have to point out that really it's "Miss Lark."

So, use any method you can to learn names and be able to use them. Although individual names are not unique, they are the most distinguishing feature of the person. Unless you can get that right, you won't even begin to understand and be able to develop the child. Nor will you be ready, years later, when a strapping hulk approaches you in a pub and says:"You're Miss A. Bet you don't remember me!" He'll probably buy you a drink if you do.

Mike Fielding is principal of The Community College, Chulmleigh, Devon

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