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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Risk Veteran Teachers Take

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

Wendy Drexler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Smile big and call everyone "honey".

Shari Edwards's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I've been teaching long enough for my former 1st grade students to show up at my door with their own kids to introduce me to! I spent most of my career at 1st and 2nd grade and began to realize several years into teaching that they go through an incredible change between 2nd grade and high school. Even students that I had kept in touch with would surprise me sometimes.

I began to ad a disclaimer to my speech on the last day of school. I told them that they would change much faster than I would and that they might actually have to remind me of their name if they met me a few years down the road. It has saved me many times!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just finished reading an article on brain research called, "Brain Research and Education: Fad or Foundation." The article was about "the newest 'break through' in education... neuroscience or brain research." The focus of the article was using this research to help struggling readers mainly through repition. The brain remembers what is repeated and looks for consistancies. The article also said that brains are never too old to learn and change (modify). Therefor, we veteran teachers should be able to find ways to remember our present and past students' names. I have been teaching kindergarten for 14 years and have always struggled with recalling certain students names. I am not sure why. Usually, the problem is two blonde girs sitting together or two boys who are disruptive all day. They of course hate it when I call them by the wrong name(s), and I apologize and promise to try not to do it again. This year, I will use the information from the brain research article on myself, and through some kind of repetitive game like Karen mention in her blog I will make my old brain remember.

karen flood's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

If you think remembering names is bad after ten years wait until you have taught 14 years. There are always those students that you remember because you say their names all the time or you have a child named the same name. Remembering their names is never my problem persay, but it is saying it correctly. Many of my students are Hispanic or foreign exchange students. Sometimes their names are not pronounced the way they look and I can butcher them the best of anybody. I try to warn the students before I even start to say them to please bare with me and help me learn to say it correctly. This does help the students that do not speak English very well to understand that I do not speak their language either and therefore they will help me learn to pronounce their names. Students love to have a laugh with the teacher, but the teacher has to be laughing to and be able to laugh at themselves with the students.

Rhonda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, smile big and call everyone "honey," but I do mix it up a bit with "baby" and "sweetie." Of course, living in the South this is a little more acceptable than in other parts of the country. What makes my lack of memory even more disturbing to me is my principal, who is in her 36th year of education, can not only remember the names of the 880 students in our school, but their parents and siblings names as well. As I have now become her assistant principal, I find this a bit daunting, especially on the first day of school when she's greeting everyone by name and I am "honeying" right next to her!

On the flip side, however, she can't remember how to sync up her iPhone or charge the battery in her digital camera and must come to me for help with all her technological needs. I guess we all have our own talents!

Kim Raybon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have enjoyed reading what everyone is sharing. For those who have been teaching awhile, we can relate so well. I have been teaching for sixteen years. All of my experience has been in kindergarten and first grade. I have had the priviledge of seeing some of my former students who are now in their second and third year of college. I have a funny story to share. Several years ago, I had a cute little girl in my class named Jesslyn. One day I needed her attention and without thinking I called out "Anna, please come here." I looked right at her and called her name out again "Anna". She knew I was looking at her, but didn't move or respond because obviously that wasn't her name. I think I called out "Anna" a couple more times becoming frustrated that she just stood there and looked at me. Finally, my brain clicked and I realized what I had done. Many years before Jesslyn, I had a little girl in my class that looked very similar to her, and her name was Anna. I had not even made the connection conscientiously until this point. Suddenly it all clicked. I tried to explain it to her, so she didn't think I was crazy, and I laughed to myself about it all day.

Pat Griffith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm beginning my 13th year next month and have a very good reason why I forget names. I went back to collge at 38 and graduated at 42. Therefore, I was already behind the curve when I began. So, now having just turned 55, I cannot even sit down and name all the students in my class 2 months ago!!! So...I say (as someone else wisely said) here in the south - use honey, sweet pea, darling, whatever. I, too, have called kids by others' names and mixed them up. Most times they have been pretty good about it. I do tell them I'm old and that's just it. I also tell them if they come back don't worry if I have to ask their name --- I probably will have to. Or 6 hours later in the middle of the night I sit up and yell their name -- my husband just laughs.

Sherrie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reading this was interesting because I have been teaching for nine years, and recently started calling my students the wrong names instead of just forgetting them! It's embarrassing, especially after being with them for eight months and you still call them the wrong name! Most of my students just laugh it off, but I know they probably go home and tell their parents. I joke around and tell them it's just my age (I'm in my mid-thirties).

Melissa 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been teaching for eleven years, but in various towns and states. Luckily I haven't had that encounter yet. Yet looking back at all of my elementary students, I am sad to say that I don't think I could place all of their names and faces. But I think many of you are right concerning those certain students who are engraved forever in our memories. The ones you tended to call more on for attention and not quite following directions. I suppose with all that we do, and balance families and everything else, our memory is aloud to be weak at times...we're only human.

Susan Barnes's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am a veteran teacher of 16 years at a middle school in North Carolina. I teach special education students as well as being the special education department head at my school. I keep track of all the students with special needs. I find interesting that the only students' names I remember are the young men and young women that I had the most difficulty with. The excellent students that met and exceeded my expectations are the students that I tend to forget over the years. Do these outstanding students really think they did not have an impact on me or do I just have a 41 year old brain that does not quite work right in remembering names. I think this new school year that I will try to keep a personal journal of each school day. I will spend 5 minutes at the end of each day to reflect on the events to keep these students in my mind so I will not forget.

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