What makes you, you? What makes me, me?
The start of any school year provides our students, parents, and staff with a whole new group of people to meet and get to know. That journey of "knowing" is full of curiosity and possibility, beginning with “what’s your name?”
In a place as multicultural, multilingual, multiracial, and multinational as the San Francisco Bay Area, hearing, remembering, and pronouncing people's names correctly can be a challenge for even the most linguistically adept. But does pronouncing someone’s name correctly matter?
Few markers are more core to our identity than our name. Names carry with them layers of meaning about who we are and from where we come. By not pronouncing someone’s name correctly, we miss the opportunity to communicate respect and appreciation. We fail to provide a moment of empathy and attention, often using the pace of life and our horrible memories as excuses to mispronounce this most important of markers.
A couple of years ago, our neighbors to the south at the Santa Clara County Office of Education launched an uplifting campaign--called My Name, My Identity--to encourage educators to pronounce students’ names correctly and to empower children to proudly educate staff as to their name’s proper pronunciation.
What better time to spotlight the importance of respecting everyone’s individual identity than at the start of a new school year? With this blog, I not only challenge myself and the 300+ staff in our local school district to pronounce students’ names correctly; I also challenge our community and students to use this Back to School season as an opportunity to prioritize correct pronunciation of the names of our new acquaintances and friends.
The national weekly education journal, EdWeek, recently ran an article about the importance of correct pronunciation including the impacts mispronunciation can have on some of our most vulnerable students. Students whose names are mispronounced, especially over a period of time, can experience isolation, humiliation, and a lack of self-worth. The mispronunciation, as EdWeek points out, is just one of the many slights non-native speakers of English will experience in our school system and communities. I think it goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway...this is not how we want any child to feel in our communities. Fortunately we are not powerless to effect change. We can all be a part of the solution.
What can you do?
First and foremost, let’s make a commitment to pronounce people’s names correctly--children and adults. If you are an educator or school support staff, be sure to learn the correct pronunciation of your students’ names and practice until you get them right. If you are a parent, learn the names of all the students (and their parents, to the degree that you can) in your child’s class. If you are a student, you are in the best position to learn the correct pronunciation, because your minds are much more “plastic” than those of adults and thus more able to get pronunciation correct more quickly. Help us grown ups say your friends’ names right.
After you make the personal commitment, be an ambassador for the effort. Allow your own vulnerability to be an example for others. Support others by helping with pronunciation. Engage in conversations with people about the importance of NAME to the individual. You might even consider signing the My Name, My Identity Pledge. Log on now to My Name, My Identity and take the pledge.
Lest you think I am preaching an irrational expectation, respecting an individual's identity by pronouncing names correctly is not about perfection. It’s about the interest and effort. Feel free to ask the person how her name is pronounced. Feel free to ask more than once. Acknowledge your desire to pronounce your new friend’s name correctly and ask for her patience as you practice.
Follow up with questions about how he got his name. Use the experience of learning his name as an open door to find out more about him. What is the origin of her name? What does his name mean? Heck, share stories behind your name. Why did your parents choose the name they chose for you? Is it a family name?
If you are an educator, an organizer of an activity, or the leader of a meeting or an event, consider using name tags and encourage everyone to wear them and call one another by name. This can happen in our schools with children as well. Encinal Elementary School, in my district of Menlo Park City School District, started the 2017-18 school year with a commitment to looking at everything through the lens of equity. The first step was making an effort to understand WHO each student IS. They launched a school-wide effort to learn and share the names of everyone at school. Teachers were asked to share their own names with other staff members and create a unique poster for their name before students arrived. The first week of school, teachers were invited to select one of a myriad of name activities in which to engage students; this included name tags worn by each child, posters by each child in the classrooms, or in-class presentations about the origin and meaning of each students’ name. While only the first step to creating deeper connection among students and teachers at Encinal, it was an impactful one. The equity efforts in their school continue today.
I am mindful that there is a danger of folks feeling shame around mispronunciation. Don’t. This message and the My Name, My Identity effort isn’t about making people feel bad. It’s about celebrating our differences. If you are the person learning and practicing the name--resist the urge to feel guilty about not getting it right the first time...or even the third. If you are the person whose name is mispronounced--consider how you can help the person to pronounce your name correctly without shaming them. Help them practice it. Make it a teachable moment with, maybe, a pneumonic device and a word of encouragement.
The diversity of our communities is a strength. With so many people of different backgrounds, faiths, languages, and countries/regions of origin, there is an open invitation to us all to expand our understanding and empathy by taking a moment to get to know the person behind the name and share more about ourselves, as well.
Signing off...Erik, with a “k,” because we have Scandinavian ancestry and my parents thought Vikings were cool. Pronounced “ERR + ik.”
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Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.