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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

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.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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Comments (46)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

R. Mitchell's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have not been teaching as long as some of you, but I have found that behaviors and personalities stand out and sink into my memory. I have had several great kids that were just quiet and did their work. I never had a single problem out of them, but yet it is hard to recall a name after a few years. I believe it is just human nature, but still something I want to improve on.

Lei Liu's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It's such an interesting and common problem we all have. I am very new in teaching, and I found I struggle in remembering students' names as well. I have two pairs of girls who look kind of the same, and they always sit beside each other. This is the 3rd week I have been teaching them, and I still cannot tell who is who. Actually it's good they sit beside each other. I just call "Rita" when I'm facing Rita and Jenny, or "Rebecca''when facing Rebeca and Lucy without looking at neither of them. Most teachers forget their students' names after a while, but I feel very bad for not even able to remember their names right now. To become a more effective teacher, I told myself try my best to know all my kids. I think there is a long way ahead of me, starting from remember their names.

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey Lei Liu,
I know that it's easier to have them sit together (as I did for a long time with my Nayma and Anahi), but it wasn't until I put them on opposite sides of the room did I begin to notice their physical differences more clearly. At some point, switch it up and then start to assign differences in your head: so-and-so with the shorter hair, so-and-so with the more rectangular glasses, etc...It certainly helped me for a long time before my brain really started to go!

Thanks for commenting and checking in on Edutopia!
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Joshua Noel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach sixth grade Communication (Language) Arts at a progressive school in an urban district. I will begin my third year come September. After reading the entries throughout this blog I realized that I may not be capable of naming every single student (of 100) that I had my first year. I darted toward my file and yanked out my first class picture. UH-OH! There were two students that I could not remember! Suddenly, an image of my first year popped into my brain. I recall at the beginning of the year that we, as a class, completed an activity where students had to choose an adjective that best described them. However, it had to rhyme with their name (ie: Heather is clever). The student would then have to present to the class why they chose that specific adjective. I focused on the two students whose names escaped my memory. Finally, it hit me like a ton of bricks: I could remember their names because of the rhyme! I did not present this activity my second year, but you better believe that I will include it in my future years. That one hour at the beginning of the school year helped me tremendously to recall their names for the future, and now!

Ten years from now? I may need a new system...

Cindy Tanner's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so glad this happens to other teachers, and I am not just losing my mind. I have been teaching in the town of Uxbridge for 17 years. I also live in the same town, so this happens frequently. Today I had a student stop by to say hi with his friend, because they were bike riding by my house. The young man , who stopped by also has a younger brother. They look very much alike, except the older brother wears glasses. The boy was not wearing glasses, but before I called him Tim (the younger brothers name) I asked a general question about teachers for next year. Thankfully he said something about not knowing the teachers at the Vocational school, so at that point I figured out that it was the older brother, Mark. Thank God I didn't call him Tim.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Being with only 28 students a day I play games with myself to remember names and if I make a mistake after the first full week of school I owe them a small piece of candy, pencil, etc. A little motivation goes a long way for me :) But, I used to teach in the middle school and see those students time and again and find myself in trouble sometimes! Manipulating pictures is so easy in today's tech world. You could use an 8 x 10 for each class period with a small photo of each student's picture and name on in that you reference prior to class, during attendance, etc. Keep these in a file and look through from year to year.

Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Photoshop and programs of the like are so user friendly now! You could take a digital picture of each student at the beginning of the year and them make an 8 x 10 mock up of your assigned seating arrangment or just alpha. Include the students names under their photo and then head the 8 x 10 with class period and year. Reference this during attendance, etc and save from year to year.

Laura Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This was my 10 year mark, too, and I hit the same name wall several times when I got visited by middle and high school kids coming back to our elementary for a visit. Of course, one kid came in and was chatting me up, though he looked completely unfamiliar. He asked, "You don't remember me, do you?" I couldn't lie. I told him I don't remember him being in any of my classes at all. He admitted that he wasn't in my class! So, I felt better about that. I wasn't going totally crazy!

My worst "meeting a former student" encounter was a couple years ago when I was approached by a student I could not remember. First off, he called me by my maiden name so I knew what years he possibly might have been in my class, but I could not place his name. I ended up having to ask him his name, and I felt bad because he was SO excited to see me. I was not totally thrilled to see him though as he approached me in the department store when I was bra shopping. And I had a bra in hand. Awkward! But we did catch up and it was nice to see that he remembered me so fondly, and as memories came back to me I remembered that he was a rather mischievous student who was probably responsible for a few premature gray hairs. How had I forgotten him? Oh well. Water under the bridge!

Regina Brinker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Seems like kids secretly do this to test teachers! The ones who look alike, dress alike, and act alike sit next to each other and confuse me all year long. Hey, I'm just in my 6th year of teaching and lose some kids' names after the last bell of the year. After 17 years, I'll really be in trouble!

I do warn kids at the start of the year, and repeat this, that I have trouble remembering names. I remind them that I have 200 new names to learn, they have maybe 4 teacher names! Good luck to us all!

Jackie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why is it that has teachers we remember the students that give us the "blues". Is it because we are in constant contact with them, "Jimmy sit down, Jimmy don't touch other people, Jimmy please follow directions the first time". A personal goal mine for next school year is to focus on all students even the quiet ones.

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