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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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

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Jason Siko's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Every now and then I flip through old gradebook files (even before we had online grading, I had an Excel spreadsheet do it). At first, it helped keep the 1000+ names and faces together, but there's always attrition. Getting a Facebook request from a student you had 6+ years ago also is problematic, especially if they're a) married or b) don't use their full name.

Tom Todd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have pictures of each class I have taught over my 9 years. At times, I take a peek at them during the school year. I find I can remember how the student behaved in my class more easily than student names. To me, that is more important than a name.

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so glad to hear this is a common thing! It happened to me for the first time last year... in an elevator with just the two of us. I couldn't even quite place which year I had her, so quickly went to the, "Tell me what you're up to these days!"

Researchers claim that forgetting happens usually either from decay of the memory trace or interference. I think both happen to me - if I haven't accessed a student's name in five years, that trace is pretty weak. On the other hand, I have also had your experience of mixing up two student... interference I think.

K. B.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I keep the class pictures to remember the kids. I have a friend who has taught for 23 years and she keeps a file of every class. When they graduate she gets out the old photos and makes a really neat slide show with them. I live in a small community and you really get to know the kids.

heatherwolpertgawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Interference could also be defined as just life. It happens. It's in how we handle these grown students that counts. We have to remember that we will always be their teachers in their minds, and we must handle the memories they have of us delicately and with respect. Thanks for the comment and for the term "interference." I think it's really applicable here.
-Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Leslie Kiper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know how you feel when a student's name escapes memory. I have been teaching for nine years already. Earlier this year we had our carpet relaced. A previous student walked into my house, and he introduced himself. I knew he looked familiar, but I did not recall that I taught him the previous year. I blamed it on a very crazy current school year. I have a two year old, so I can't use the baby brain excuse any more. I decided that I have to start writing everything down now.

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