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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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I have been teaching for ten years. I have mentored teachers, become a department head, sat on committees, presented at conferences, and taught upward of 2,500 students ranging from third grade to 12th grade.

But all of that does not make me a veteran teacher. What makes me an official veteran teacher is the fact that I have hit my memory wall. The computer that is my brain is beginning to empty the trash, student by student, one at a time.

Who's Who?

This is the first year I've been approached by past students I cannot name. This past school year was also the first year I still didn't have some students' names memorized by June. Yes, up until the very end, I still got those two girls mixed up in second period and those same three girls confused in fourth period. Don't look shocked. I mean, don't I get any credit for having the rest of my 237 students down pat? No? Sigh.

I've heard some teachers blame students for our eventual memory glitches, as if it's the kids' faults that they don't stand out enough to catch our attention. But I know this isn't true. After all, it's as much up to the teacher to bring out a student as it is for students to do their best for the teacher to see them. And this year, I dropped the ball in ways I haven't before.

It worries me. Is it a harbinger of things to come? Am I destined to lose my vital antennae, too?

The Name Game

Yet this disintegration of memory also demands that I hone certain skills in order to hide my idled brain:

  • I've become an expert in the art of calling on students without needing to use their names. It involves indiscriminately using generic terms like "You" and "Over there." Subtle, huh?
  • I call specific names with my head lowered, looking intently at some piece of paper on my podium to hide the fact that my eyes go to the wrong girl every time.
  • I ask other students to ask So-and-So to come up to my desk.
  • I have tried rhyming their names. I've tried seating charts. I've tried comparing their features to those of celebrities, past students -- even vegetables. It's just that my file is full.

Facing the Facts

I had always prided myself in remembering every student I've ever taught. In the past, I've been able to brag that I can detect any former student, even though the middle school face morphs over a single summer into an entirely different member of the human species. I can still find the name, the saga, a past accomplishment, and the topic of their fall narrative essay somewhere in the bone structure that was once my student from long ago. Not so anymore.

I have officially become one of the glazed-over legions of teachers, who, when met with a smiling past student out of context, responds with the generic, "Oh, hey! I haven't seen you for a while. How are things?" Warning: This student may appear from out of nowhere, leaping before you when you least expect it. She's a waiter at your local restaurant or a coach in your own child's Little League. He's the smiling face coming at you in the grocery store, or the clerk at your local shoe store.

At your fill-in-the blank response, the student's face may drop just a little, as she hopes for more. If you have the guts, you fess up and say, "I'm so sorry. What was your name again?" The student claims sympathy and understanding, but I know that it's just a pretense for her disappointment.

After all, through you, students are learning a lesson in life that you the teacher never wanted to teach. They are learning that though you had an impact on them, they may not have had as huge an impact on you.

Or, rather, they once did, but then life came along and took away the memory of their names, leaving their impact behind. If only I could help these past students understand that it is what I've learned from them over the years that means far more to me and to my current students than any name. After all, with every name learned that I then forget, there are dozens of stories I take with me from year-to-year that I learned from them, perhaps even without their knowledge.

It is in this way that I remember them all.

Can you relate? What ways do you handle the common dilemma of forgetting students' names? We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas.

Comments (46)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Julie Klein's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article also mentioned that memory is not stored in just one location. When we recall information we have pieces that have to be back together. I see it like pieces of a puzzle being put together to create the memory. Since I cannot seem to paraphrase this little portion of it, I will quote it "the more students have the information represented in the brain (through seeing, hearing, being involved with, etc.) the more pathways they have for reconstructing, the richer the memory." (Wolfe, 2003) This would explain why we are better able to remember recent and current students. We are still involved with them. We see them and work with them on a daily basis. Past students are more difficult to remember because our brain has replaced it with other information. Plus, let's keep in mind that our students change over time and it is harder to recognize them!

Dustin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm only entering my fifth year of teaching in the public school system and already I occasionally forget students' names. What will it be like in ten or twenty years?
I am a K-12 music teacher and on any given day I can see 250 students come through my classroom. I think if I saw the same 20 or so size class everyday I would do better, but the problem I encounter is mixing up siblings names. Because I teach all age levels of students in a very small town (400+ students) I see sometimes 4 or 5 siblings in a day, and they often all look alike! When I was growing up, my teachers often called me by my older brother's name. We were two years apart and looked very different, but they drew that connection between our last names and mixed up the names. I never understood that as a student, but now that I am teaching that is my most common name mistake. There are five brothers (no twins, triplets, etc) and 3 of them play percussion in grades 5-12. Same blond hair, same toothy grin, same build. In 20 years I'll probably be able to know what instrument they played and how well they played it, but I don't think I'll know the names.
Good luck!

Kelly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do not think it matters how many years you have been teaching. Being a novice teacher, I couldn't recall all the names of my students I have had. The ones we can remember are the ones that stood out in your classroom.Sometimes it helps if the child has a unique name as well.

Kristin Holtz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

1. Names are funny things. When I was in 5th grade, my science teacher called me Heather for the better part of the year. I learned to react to that name during her class. I found out at conferences that my parents actually almost named me Heather and the teacher and I got a big kick out of it!

2. I used to have a wonderful memory. I would still mix up student's names sometimes, but would remember each name for years. Then about 4 years ago I had two strokes (age 30) and although there are no other lasting deficiencies from the incident (for which I'm extremely grateful) I can't remember things well at all. What I've learned to do with current students is in the first few days of class I try to say their names at least a few times each day. When they raise their hands, I call on them by name or ask them to repeat their name. Then, just before class is over I run down the roster and say each name again. Although this process works for me while I have the students in class, I struggle to remember names if I don't see the students for a time. I guess it's a start though.

Stacie Fullmer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so glad there are others like me. :) I, too, apologize. Plus almost every year I get called mom by at least one student. I just remind everyone that sometimes are brains are thinking faster and the wrong name comes out. I have never really had any parents or students that got too upset. Now I just chalk it up to 14 years of a lot of names.

Ashley Rosenthal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that remembering student's names is may not be directly linked to how many years one has been teaching. Just like our students, we all work, remember, and learn in a variety of ways and multiple intelligences. Although we may find that skills such as remembering names may seem easier in the beginning of the our career, it may be because we work so hard to be perfect at everything until things get easier. If you have found that it is difficult for you to remember your students names now that you have been teaching for a long period of time, it might be time to find new ways to help you such as songs, making connections, or playing games. I wouldn't feel guilty if you don't remember students of long ago, it's a natural occurrence. Live in the now, and find new ways for you that help you learn, just as you do for your students.

Molli's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a first year teacher I do not have a problem with names yet. It was difficult for me to pernounce some of my students' last name. I never had a problem forgetting them. I remember a third grade teacher; that remembers everyone's names. He wasn't even my teacher. Till this day if I see him out and about he will talk to me. He's knows everyone's name even if he didn't have them in class. He also knew when they graduated. I think he is amazing! I don't think he has ever forgotten someone. I hope in my years I will be able to be like him. Everyone has a different way of learning and containing information. I just wish I will be able to be like him.

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You know, I really love reading the comments on my blog posts, but I also really love learning from other teachers. Thank you so much for giving me concrete advice to help me in my own classroom. I hope readers scan through these helpful comments as much as they read the articles. It's what a healthy blog is meant to be...a collaborative discussion. Thanks for being a part of my own learning process, and thanks for checking in with Edutopia.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Juli 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too can struggle with names and I have only completed my 6th year of teaching(I'm only 28!). Anyway, my point is that age doesn't matter because this happens to all teachers. I have taught in 5 different schools in my 6 years of teaching, so I know what it's like to have and know a lot of students and they all seem to want you to remember their name. I feel that it's far more important to remember their faces and what impact they had on you. I am often times running into my former students at the grocery store, the mall, or the swimming pool. I'll recognize them and they might even recognize me and if I'm confronted, I usually have to ask, "Now what school did I have you in class?" They usually understand because they know that I have worked in so many buildings and grade levels. If they don't remember, then I remind them. One thing to keep in mind... our students have probably only 6 or 7 teachers' names to know in one given school year and we sometimes have hundreds to know! Let's not beat up ourselves over this and know that we at least made the effort to know all of our students' names. That's what's important.... that you made the effort and made each student feel special and recognized in your class!!!

Vangie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do have difficulty remebering names but it is so nice to know that I am not the only one struggling in this area. Specialist teachers like me have at least 150 students each day going in and out of our classrooms. Yes, 150 names and faces I should memorize is not an easy task for a teacher like me. I would like to blame it on my age but I have had professors back in my college days who were at least 65years old but they know their students' names very well. There is this art teacher at school, a good friend of mine, whose memory of students' names, according to her, is "worse than anyone else." She asked all the classroom teachers to send all the specialist teachers a list of classnames with photos. It helped all of us tremendously. But of course, I still forget names when I don't have the list in my hand.

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