George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Drawing of two students

It’s a common predicament for educators. They familiarize themselves with students quickly, but can’t easily retrieve names on demand. The crush of first week stress compounds the problem by redirecting blood for a fight or flight response, dulling teachers’ focus. And biology does us no favors by storing visual information and names in separate parts of the brain.

Some teachers turn to awkward work-arounds. But “Hey, Boss!” or “Good to see you!” are obvious giveaways, and “Can you spell your name for me?” might be answered with “M-i-k-e.”

Here’s the secret: take the same enthusiasm you have for baseball statistics, or civil war battles, or Christian Louboutin shoe prices, or Kardashian trivia, and apply it to learning students’ names. Everybody has a good memory for things that interest them, according to Richard Harris, a Kansas State University psychology professor. So instead of kicking over your inner shame bucket, take a fanatical interest in connecting with your students and their names.

To help you out even more, we’ve prepared a short cheat sheet of effective tactics for imprinting students’ names onto your brain.


What techniques do you use to remember students’ names?
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male_ware's picture

Well, The Dixie Diarist, while your self aggrandising post doesn't really address the topic it does promote your product. But, what concerns me most, is your delight in publicly giving a nickname to a pupil you yourself describe as a "victim"; le mot juste. In general pupils don't enjoy public humiliation. Perhaps the advice on learning real names will help us all.

TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


For what it's worth, his mother thought it was perfect, too. What was your nickname?

Dinesh Poudel's picture

I'm into teaching for 27 years and I almost always knew my pupils' names by the end of the first month of the academic year (their numbers 40-60 in a classroom, and 4-6 forty min. periods a day in different classes, we teachers go from classroom to classroom here in NEPAL). But this year I am still struggling to identify the kids with new classes, only two of them (40 each) are completely new to me and I go to those classes four days a week. Is it age, or something? I'm only 51.

Todd Finley's picture
Todd Finley
Blogger and Assistant Editor (Contractor)

My guess, Dinesh, is that you have more responsibilities now than when you were in your twenties. Learning names takes time and work...I have to keep reminding myself that there is no substitute for that. As I write this, I'm taking a break from repeating the names of students out loud at a Starbucks! Good luck, my colleague in Nepal.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

First off, I used my seating chart heavily, and found that it really helped if they sat in alphabetical order the first week or so. Beside each kid's name, I would write a clue. It might be the name of a celebrity they looked like, a physical detail like a cowlick, or something weird, like "shoes" for the kid who kept kicking off his shoes on the first day. Whatever stood out.

Another strategy -- albeit a more time-consuming one -- would be to take a two quick snapshots of each kid on the first day of school: One with them holding a dry-erase board with their name on it, and one without. These could then be printed out and used to make two-sided flash cards (I would just print them in low quality and just glue-stick them to index'll only need them for a few days, so they don't need to be awesome). For middle and secondary teachers, this would be a LOT of flash cards, but it's the kind of thing you could do in front of the TV, no? Then you can carry them around with you for a few days and study like you'd study SAT vocabulary words.

I would also add that it's really, really important to put lots of effort at the beginning of the year into making sure you're calling students what they want to be called, and pronouncing their names correctly. If a student has an unusual name, chances are they are already used to having it bungled, so be one of the rare ones who gets it right.

keg2139's picture

I'm a newer teacher and I make a big show out of learning my students' names. On the first day, each student writes their name or preferred nickname on a scrap paper table tent. Over the next few days, I "test" myself by matching the names to the students, passing out the name tents while they're working on the Warm-Up. Seeing their name next to their face helps me memorize the names pretty fast, plus I can call on them using their names from the start. I practice again as my kids leave the class and whenever I see them in the halls, making a big show of getting it right or trying to remember. Since I'm kind of silly about it - dramatically shouting, "No! Wait! Don't tell me!" if I can't remember and doing an enthusiastic fist pump when I get it right, it helps me connect with students individually, while sharing a bit more of my playful personality.

jpeterson-shea's picture
7-12th grade art instructor from Phillipsburg, Kansas

I know that I have memory issues. (chronic migraine) Not just names. I also think it is important that students see that teachers are not perfect. So I ask for the students help and tell them that it is ok to remind me. It helps that I teach grades7-12. Not saying that I don't work on names. I do. I print off rosters with their pictures and name and put them in a folder to study.

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