I have always thought that learning the names of my students creates a better classroom environment. The alternative — pointing a finger at a student I want to call on, or calling out the “the young man in the green sweater” — seems rude and crude.
Plus, learning students’ names is simply respectful. It acknowledges their dignity as individuals. It sends the message that you care enough about what you’re doing as a teacher to make the effort to learn their names. And, as Natalie Houston has observed at The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog, it builds rapport, creates a sense of community, and facilitates classroom management tasks such as taking attendance and grading class participation.
Learning students’ names comes in handy outside the classroom, too, where “Good morning, young man in the green sweater” sounds demented and a simple “Good morning” sounds incomplete after you’ve been greeted by your name. There’s just one problem.
I am terrible at names.
Actually, I am worse than terrible. I am ridiculously awful with names. I’ve greeted someone with a handshake and exchange of our names and forgotten the other person’s name before letting go of their hand. It’s as if the name went into a dark cave in my brain, never to be seen or heard again. More likely, though, the name probably never got to my brain at all. Either way, it didn’t click, register, stick, or stay.
I do okay in seminars with up to twenty students. With a roster and photo array before the first class and a few minutes of conversation with each student during class, I am usually good to go for the rest of the semester.
In a large class — say my first-year Torts class with 93 students — it’s a lost cause.
But there’s help for the hapless, and where there’s help there’s hope. I like Natalie Houston’s short list of name-learning helpers. The University of Nebraska has a website where they describe twenty-three tips and tricks for learning students’ names. As they say, not all of them will be compatible with your personal style, but some of them may prove to be useful.