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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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patricia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello there I felt your pain so I thought I would share. I am an 8th and 7th grade math teacher at Lennox Middle School

I too have trouble with names but that has been something I have struggled with for most of my life. It has gotten me into some embarrassing moments with family members. I have tried so many things like saying their name in a song, rhyming their name with a food or an animal, saying their name three times as I am speaking to them and well my list goes on. This past year I even tried the picnic game. This requires my class to sit in a circle and I start by saying I am Patty and I like pepper, then I turn to the right and that student says hello, then points to me as he introduces me as patty that likes pepper and then he says I am Sam and I like soda. Then he turns to the person to his right and that person must introduce me again and what I like then Sam and what he likes before she tells us her name and what she likes. In the end when the person to my left has finished this long list of names and what they like, turns to me and I must say all of the students' names and what they like. This helped me a lot for those first few periods because every time I looked at them I would remember the food and then their name would come up. Of course after my fourth class when I had already 10 sodas an 15 hamburgers it was starting to fall apart but I can see this working for smaller classrooms and even if you make each year a different topic that should help a bit more for the years to come. I hope.

I am sure that all of our students have a hard time remembering their teachers' names as well. Many of my students have referred to their teachers as the one who teaches in room 316. I myself cannot remember my teachers' names unless they shined for me. Meaning if they made me have fun during class I can remember them. For example, Mr. Randovich my 7th grade SS teacher always started the session with a joke. Sister Mary Brenden my 5th grade teacher always allowed us to wet our hair on those hot days when the AC was no longer working. Ms. Blanco held my hand my entire first day of kindergarten so I would no longer cry.

I always tell my students from the beginning "I am sorry if I forget your name and I'm sorry if I decided to change it and you do not like it, but if you shine for me I will always remember you face." My students shine for me, and when they come back to visit or I happen to see around I remember their face. I had a student come up to me one time at a mall and when I saw him I smiled and he knew I could not for the life of me remember his name but I remembered his face and how he always had a smile for me as soon as he walked into my classroom.

Do not feel bad that you forget their names even when you see them smile so they know that you may not remember the name but oh boy you sure do remember the face.

Nancy K's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that we all experience this to a degree, but I am not too ashamed about my flubs in, or more often, out of the classroom. I consider making mistakes in front of my students a valuable learning experience that shows them that it is more important to try to perfect yourself than to be perfect. I agree that it can be embarassing and guilt inducing to forget an old face or constantly scramble some names. I feel that I am often quick to memorize my students' names in August, but know that retention seems to be more of an issue even though I have only been teaching for 9 years.
I agree that I am much more likely to remember a troublemaker that a quiet overachiever, but I think that those somewhat troublesome kids need the recognition of their personalities especially if they struggle academically.

Kristy Koch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this blog because the content connects to something I go through daily. After teaching for only 4 years, the school district I work for provides me with the opportunity to see about 100 students a day. When these kids enter my classroom in September, I begin by taking their picture and making myself flashcards or seating charts with pictures and names. One would probably think this is far fetched; however, as I have problems remembering fellow teachers' names at times, this was the best way for me to be able to call on students by name after only two weeks.

I like the comment that Patricia made in her response blog July 29th. "I am sorry if I forget your name and I'm sorry if I decided to change it and you do not like it, but if you shine for me I will always remember you face." (Patricia, 2009) I think this way but never have thought to be so honest to my students about the forgetfulness of the human mind. Wishing to be like those who remember every first and last name of every student who has passed through their doors must be wonderful. Those of us without this talent and ability must find other ways. Do your best and your kids will understand.

Kristy Koch

Patricia. (2009, July 29). Shine For Me. Message posted to A Risk Veteran Teacher Take, archived at http://www.edutopia.org/veteran-teacher-hazard-memory-names

Kristy Koch's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading this blog because the content connects to something I go through daily. After teaching for only 4 years, the school district I work for provides me with the opportunity to see about 100 students a day. When these kids enter my classroom in September, I begin by taking their picture and making myself flashcards or seating charts with pictures and names. One would probably think this is far fetched; however, as I have problems remembering fellow teachers' names at times, this was the best way for me to be able to call on students by name after only two weeks.

I like the comment that Patricia made in her response blog July 29th. "I am sorry if I forget your name and I'm sorry if I decided to change it and you do not like it, but if you shine for me I will always remember you face." (Patricia, 2009) I think this way but never have thought to be so honest to my students about the forgetfulness of the human mind. Wishing to be like those who remember every first and last name of every student who has passed through their doors must be wonderful. Those of us without this talent and ability must find other ways. Do your best and your kids will understand.

Kristy Koch

Patricia. (2009, July 29). Shine For Me. Message posted to Risks a Veteran Teacher Takes, archived at http://www.edutopia.org/veteran-teacher-hazard-memory-names

DeAnna Cox's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach elementary school in a Title I school in Winder, Georgia. I, like all of you, am bombarded everyday with schedules, lesson plans, and everything else that goes along with teaching in these times. I have a motto that I try to live by-- don't sweat the small stuff. Remembering names of students from years past is small in the scheme of things. We all have had those embarrassing moments when we are stopped by students in the mall or at the grocery store. What is important to examine is whether you are showing the students that you genuinely care about them. Treating them with respect, taking responsibility for your job, showing them that they really matter to you, and recognizing the differences in all your students will be what they will remember years down the road.

I was sitting in a pre-planning inservice today where my principal read a letter from the district teacher of the year. She made a comment that really stuck with me. She said that her father, a retired educator, would often see former students around town. He would always stop and talk with them about what was going on in their life at the time. His conversations with them were always genuine and caring as if nothing else mattered right then. Many of these students had become adults and changed a great deal from the students that he had known. When his daughter would ask who the student was, most of the time the name was not remembered. But, this teacher said that her father never let that student know that he could not recall their name. He made them feel so special when he spoke with them. Remembering the name is small compared to the relationship that the retired educator still was able to cultivate with his former students.

Luke Rhonemus's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am glad to know that there are other educators out there who go through the same problems I do! Although I haven't been teaching for quite as many years as some of you, it does bewilder me to see how quickly I can forget names. As with Heathe's post, this certain "evil" seems to be infecting me more and more every year! My biggest downfall is calling my students, whom I had their siblings in class formerly, the wrong name. It is much easier for me to just refer to last names at times and that seems to keep me from being wrong. With as much stress as we teachers can go through and the overwhelming worry and concern we have for our students to be successful, it is no wonder that we can overlook names. To me, it is still a small blessing that I get from having former students make it a point to say hello in the grocery, or tell old stories about school, or even have their brothers and sisters in the same classroom years later! I have come to the conclusion that I won't ever remember all of my students or their names, but I can sure try to do the best I can! I enjoyed reading everyone's responses and hang in there for the 2010 school year.

Karen Munski's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this blog. I like the humorous twist on the problem that most of us have!

I just finished my first year of teaching. I knew every students name in my general music classes (out of 200), but in my chorus of 89, I probably knew half their names. I tried a photo seating chart, using our computer directory to memorize names, sitting students alphabetically, and more.

If anyone else figures out how to do this better, let me know! Next year I have a chorus of 140 coming in, and there will probably be a student or two that I barely talk to all year. I would LOVE advice on the best way to memorize names!

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After 20 years of teaching, I sometimes can't remember my students' names from the previous year, much less from several years ago. I just smile and say "Hi baby" or "It's so good to see you" or just a little something to let them think I remember them; and I do remember the majority of them as a student, just not their name. It's called overload! When you teach an average of 80 students per year, it's impossible to recall all those names after several years. The really bad part is when they are in high school or have graduated, and many have changed so much since elementary school, that they're unrecognizable! I feel honored when they remember me! It doesn't bother me too terribly if I forget my older students' names, but I could kick myself if I forget one during the year that I teach - I can see the hurt on their face, and I try so hard to let them know that it was just a temporary brain spazm.
It's a shame, though, how we remember the super 'perfect' students or the really obnoxious ones we thought we'd lose our license over, but the others just tend to blend in with time. I've decided that as long as I'm on board during the year with the classes I'm teaching, that I'll just use my age as an excuse with the older students!

Joanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm an Elementary General Music Specialist and this is my 7th year of teaching 600 students per week in a school with high poverty and nearly a 50% turnover rate in a single year. Talk about a task of remembering names!

These are my tricks:
1. First I explain that "I can only remember 50% of the names at a given time and that which 50% I remember changes from day to day, so please forgive me if I forget your name today." I also tell them that, if I can't remember their name fast, I can often remember it slowly (after they're left me in the hallway).
2. I make sure I have eye contact with every student both as they're entering the room and as they are leaving, if at all possible, to make sure that every student knows that I know they're here. I almost always use "pinky hello's" and "pinky good-bye's" or fist "daps" so that there is physical contact between us for all students grades K - 5. Most kids really look forward to this, even if their day in class didn't go so well.
3. I make sure that students know that, even if I can't remember their names, I know who they are and what makes them laugh and that that is the the really important part.
4. They also see me recognize students when they leave for several days/months or several years and then return (which happens frequently).
5. My assigned duty is lunch duty for grades 2-3 and 4-5 and I use that time to interact with the students on a daily basis in addition to the once-per-week class schedule.
6. I try to use checklists in class which force me to use their names. This year I'm having students use a rubric which we worked together on the first couple of weeks to self-evaluate their effort for the day and give me their grade at the end of every class period. I have them line up in alphabetical order and use fingers to show me their self grade (which I must agree with) which I write down on my roster. I need to recognize the students enough to notice when they're out of order, which forces me to learn their names better. Since I don't give a lot of assessment grades due to only seeing them 8 - 10 times per quarter, this is a big part of their report card grade. It's also been helping me remember them better.
7. I make a game about practicing their names and always give a cheer when I remember one correctly so they don't take my memory for granted.

Truthfully, it's only been 2 - 3 years that I feel I can look at a list of names and get a picture in my mind of 97% of them.

My goal each year is that every student knows that I know who they are and how valuable they are even if I can't remember their name.

If you've read this to here, thanks for listening.

Gaye Wynn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I take each of my class list (5 total) and then pray for the students in the class one by one on a certain day of the week. For example, on Mondays, I pray for my 1st hour class, and so on. Even if you don't practice prayer, you could write the list of names on a certain day each week. That weekly practice really cements their names into my memory by the middle of the year!

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