When we meet someone, our name is usually the first piece of our identity that we share. Of course, some names can be difficult to read, write or pronounce, especially if you have never encountered them before.
We’ve all experienced having our name remembered wrongly or pronounced incorrectly – and no doubt done it to others. In social settings, at conferences or parties this may not matter too much.
What's in a name?
But in international schools, with cohorts of students from different nations, cultural backgrounds and religions, names matter a lot: for many, they are their identity in a setting where little else may feel like home as they navigate the complexity of living abroad.
As a child, I dreaded having my name called out during morning registration.
Over the years, I have heard every rendition of my name, and have seen it misspelled often. I used to hold my tongue and tell myself to accept that my name, with its Arabic origins, was just too hard for people to perfect.
I know now that this was problematic. No child should feel that they are too different to be accepted as they are.
Who they are
But mispronouncing a name can add to the difficulty faced by students living away from their home countries. The linguistic importance of a person’s name stretches further than just syllables being spoken aloud.
By mispronouncing or asking students to refer to themselves with a simpler version of their names, we are creating barriers that hinder them from feeling welcome or being their truest selves in our classrooms.
We cannot pick and choose which names we are comfortable with pronouncing based on our own backgrounds.
I am not saying, of course, that teachers have to know every name before they encounter it – as a teacher myself, I know that not knowing how to say a name can feel embarrassing or awkward. Rest assured, it is OK not to know.
Don't be afraid to ask
It’s what you do next that is vital: many people shy away from asking for help when it comes to getting the pronunciation right but the discomfort of these situations is far worse for the child with the name that has been deemed a challenge to pronounce.
It is the job of the teacher to become comfortable with the uncomfortable and endeavour to learn.
Yet sometimes schools get this wrong – with pupils and staff.
During my first posting as a teacher, I was encouraged to introduce myself as Ms E, to avoid confusing the students with my “difficult” surname.
Years after my own schooling experiences, I considered accepting that my Middle Eastern name might just be too complex for people to articulate.
Instead, though, I took a chance and hoped that the students would be able to learn my name, and, of course, they did. By choosing to celebrate, rather than conceal, my name, I taught others that my identity is more important than their discomfort.
How to promote inclusion in your classroom
We must empower our students to embrace who they are, beginning with how they are addressed.
So how do you do this best? Here are five tips to help you promote inclusion in your classroom.
- Simply ask the person to pronounce their name for you. This is much less awkward than taking a guess. If you forget or are still unsure, you can ask them to repeat it or remind you of the correct pronunciation.
- Write down the phonetic spelling of names that you are unsure of, and stick these on your desk. When you are taking the register, remember to have these visible. Be sure to share this with cover teachers, too!
- Use an online tool, such as NameShouts, and listen to the pronunciation of names that are new to you. Practice makes perfect.
- Advocate for your students. If you hear another member of staff mispronouncing a name, gently correct them or remind them of the accurate pronunciation.
- Apologise if you realise that you have mispronounced someone's name. Not only does this demonstrate your willingness to acknowledge your error, but it also shows that you value the process of developing positive relationships.
In order to create a truly inclusive and respectful environment in international schools, we must be brave and show each child that their identity is important; beginning with their name.
Marym Elagha is the Year 5 leader at Alice Smith School in Kuala Lumpur. She tweets @Ms_Elagha