For the longest time, remembering names was a huge problem for me. In my first classes, way back when I started teaching, I was still struggling after several weeks and it got quite embarrassing in the end. If you also suffer, you have to find strategies that work for you, as I eventually did. Today’s timely – I hope! – post looks at some of the problems we face and, more importantly, some excellent strategies we can use, as given by some ‘old pros’…
Part one: The view from the trenches
1. So many students, so many names
Initially you might find remembering student names a real problem, especially if you’ve just arrived in a country in which names are unfamiliar to you. Can you always tell your Halil from your Halit? More importantly, are you expected to? Here are some responses I received from those of view in the classrooms who posted on a thread on an ELT forum.
‘I’ve currently got 186 in total. Not a chance!’
‘I have around 1100 students in 22 classes. No way I can remember names. Can’t see myself printing all those name cards, either.’
‘I have about 380 students, and I have been never very good with remembering names. Yes, using the person’s name helps to remember it, but it also helps if you have more regular contact with the same people as well. People I see once a week in larger groups, not much of a chance.’
2. So many students, so few names
Another problem you may come across is what I like to call the ‘so many students, so few names’ dilemma. Learning the name won’t be the problem here, but differentiating one Dave from another might be.
‘I have one easy class. Of eight students, the four women are all called Fatimah. The four guys are, respectively, Ali, Mohammed, Ali-Abdul, and Mohammed. Can anyone beat 8 students, 3 names?’
‘In Qatar I once had a class of 26. 19 of them had the first name Mohammed.’
How practical is your method of remembering names? Can you really take photos or make name-tags for all? Consider this…
‘As to taking pics, sorry, I’m not much of a camera guy. That’s a lot of extra photos to be lugging around. I know some teachers have students bring their photos as an assignment, but I’m not sure I want to make seating charts that are that large or to make student files for so many students. I don’t have that much extra free time.’
4. My mind is playing tricks on me
We can be our own worst enemies too. Only last year I had a student whose name was lazy Roger Waters, because he was very lazy and looked incredibly like the former Pink Floyd bassist. Funnily enough, this didn’t help me remember his real name. I’m not alone…
‘My worst problem is I often assign a name before knowing the real name. If a student looks like someone I know named Mehmet, it will take ages to get Mehmet out of my head. Or I’ll see a student for the first time and think “Walter Matthau” or “Shiny Hair” or whatever, which makes it easy to recognize a student but hard to remember the name.’
‘Students 11′ by @yearinthelifeof from #ELTPics
Part two: Practical advice from seasoned professionals
My advice is to find something that works for you. I’m a lot better at remembering names than I used to be because I now employ some of the techniques described below (please note: some of these are quotes from people using forum pseudonyms, while others quoted will be more familiar!):
1. Use names often
‘My dad was a corporate trainer, he had new students every two weeks, and sometimes the following year some of the students would take another of his courses. He was great with names. His trick was to use the person’s name repeatedly in your first conversation. It feels weird at first but works.
– Hi John, nice to meet you.
– Where are you from John?
– John, can you sit over here next to Sue?
– Sue, can you help me hand out these papers?
– Thank you, Sue.’
2. Make associations
‘I think it helps if you can make quick associations with their names to their features or what they’re wearing. I think that’s how I do it. It’s like their names pop out when I see their faces.’
3. The circle game
‘In classes of 25 or fewer, space permitting, I put them in a circle. I choose one student to say his/her name, then go around the circle where each student has to say all the names that came before, plus his or her own name. At the end I go around the circle and say all their names, twice if I really screw it up the first time.’
4. Make a classroom plan
Make an outline of the classroom, and on the first day go student by student, asking their names and completing your plan. Leave this on your desk and, for the first few classes at least, make sure people sit in the same spot for the beginning of the lesson. Or ask students to make a little name card and place it on the desk in front of them.
5. Repeat the name
The only thing I do to learn student names quickly is to repeat the name to the student a few times and attach a mental image to the name. My record is 150 student names in two weeks.
6. Use cards
I see most of my students once a week, in classes of about thirty, so at the start of the first semester I have a lot of names to remember. Every student makes an attendance card, which I hand out at the beginning of class and take in at the end. They use it to give themselves a score (minus points for speaking too much Japanese, forgetting their textbook etc), for answering reflection questions about the day’s lesson, for telling me a few extra snippets about themselves, and they all have a photo. I can look through them between classes to put names to faces, and peek at them as I walk around “monitoring”.
7. Write names on the board
This is only relevant for mixed nationality groups, but a nice way to start a new class can be to write your name up on the board – explain who gave you the name and why, nicknames you’ve had, along with anything else that seems relevant to your name. And then hand the pen to a student and invite them to do the same. As the pen gets passed around, there are sometimes ‘aha’ moments as a Japanese students write up their name and the kanji characters are recognized by Korean or Chinese classmates, while I and fellow European students watch in amazement. And then hopefully someone from say Argentina steps up and explains their multiple surnames, and the wonder carries on. Only a rose could smell as sweet…
8. Describe the person
This is the method I most often use: writing things by the side of the class list describing each person so that I can remember who is who. You will probably want to keep this secret from the students and even other teachers, as the easiest thing to learn their names from is often short physical descriptions, and the easiest ones to remember people from might not always be taken as complimentary. Other possibilities of what to write include things like “highest level student”, “always comes late”, “pauses a long time before speaking”, “joined the class in the second month”, “obsessed by cats” or “usually first to arrive”.
Hey… Where’s 9 and 10?
That’s where you come in! If you have any further suggestions, please let me know in the comments section below and I’ll add them to the post.
For me, the following quote sums up why this is an important issue;
‘When I was a student, I’d feel really bad if my name was the one forgotten by a teacher who remembered other names, so I try to plan around my being bad at remembering names.’
If you’re teaching a relatively small group of people regularly for any length of time, get to know their names. If, like me, this is something you’re just not good at, here are some good ways to help you plan around it from Lindsay Clandfield‘s excellent 6 things blog. Also, Alex Case has a great list of ideas here.