On the subject of black students and their names

jasper alina kevin niklas write on chalkboard

As a teacher, one of the very first things you will do when you get your new class is take the register. This seemingly simple act can send shivers down the spine of the most confident educator.

Over the course of a year, a primary school teacher has to get to know at least 30 names; a secondary school teacher could potentially be learning at least four times that number over the course of a single term.

But doing that roll call is not always as straightforward as it may seem. For those teachers who have the privilege of working in a school with multiple nationalities, learning 30 or more names comes with the added pressure of being able to pronounce a list of names which you may never have encountered before.

Names such as Aishwarya, Lakshay, Adeola, Bahrat, Mahmuda, Ifeoma, Omatayo, Abimbola, Mahjabeen, Jignesh, Muyiwa and Olajide may not roll off the tongue as easily as Jenny, Paul, Kelly or Amanda, but in the grand scheme of things, they are no more difficult to pronounce than Anastasia, Alexi, Raphael, Sinead or Bronwyn. The only difference is that they are unfamiliar names and will therefore take more time to learn.

But that’s the key. It’s all about the level of importance a teacher places on taking the time to learn how to pronounce the names of their students so that the student’s sense of identity is not diminished, and they feel respected.

Speaking as someone whose father was Ghanaian, I understand the additional significance of names. In the region my father came from, a town called Teshi in Accra, the language spoken by most (in addition to English) is Ga.

A slight side bar here – There are lots of other languages spoken but no-one speaks ‘Ghanaian’ it is not a language in and of itself, the same way that Nigerian is not a language in and of itself. Yoruba, Igbo, Hausa are just three of the many languages spoken in Nigeria.

But I digress. In the region that my father was from, as is the case in many other other African countries, when a child is born, one of the names it is given is determined by the day of the week they were born on.

I was born on a Monday so one of my middle names is Adjua (variations of the spelling are common), although for some random reason it’s spelt Odua on my birth certificate. My father was born on a Friday so one of his names was Kofi.

In some cultures, names are key and not calling someone by the proper name is incredibly disrespectful.

If we go back to the whole pronunciation thing, as I said, it’s important to learn how to pronounce someone’s name. When you see the name Siobhan on paper for the first time, you may well pronounce it incorrectly the first time, but once corrected by the owner of said name, you’d get it right the next time. The same should be true for the Olujide’s and Mahjabeen’s of this world. The fact is, if you work in places such as London, Birmingham or Luton, the chances are that you will meet more Muyiwa’s and Halima’s than you will Siobhans.

Shortening student’s names can also become a contentious issue. When parents register their child at a nursery or at a primary school, they have to provide a birth or adoption certificate which contains the child’s full name. This is the name which becomes associated with a Unique Pupil Number (UPN) – a number which identifies each pupil in the local-authority-maintained school system and remains with the child throughout their schooling. So, unless a parent requests a name change, by submitting the relevant legal documentation, the child’s name on the register is the one on their birth certificate.

Now, we all know that names of people of all ages and ethnicities often get shortened; Thomas becomes Tom, Melanie becomes Mel and Tolulope can get shortened to Tolu. However, it is the choice of the person to whom the name belongs as to whether they are happy for their name to be shortened.

There are times when the question is asked ‘what would you like to be called?’ If a student states they would like to be called Tolulope, then that is what they should be called. Teachers, have no right to shorten the name to Tolu or Lope or Timi, simply to make it easier for them. Where’s the respect in that?

The need for adults to shorten or change the names of those from African or South Asian countries is very often borne out of laziness, it’s too much of a challenge to learn to say the name properly. This should never be the case in a school. Why on earth do we teach phonics, if we don’t try to employ the skills when learning names? Or, at the very least, ask the child “how do I pronounce your name?” or “am I pronouncing your name correctly?” If you have got it wrong and you ask them, they will politely correct you. Those of us who have worked in schools for long enough know that some students are just waiting for you to pronounce their name incorrectly, they’re use to it. The whole class may giggle if you say it wrong at which point the student will say “no sir, you pronounce it, Adekunle.”

If they say, “just call me Ade miss, if it’s easier.” Ask them….is that what your parents/family/siblings call you? If the answer is no, they call me Adekunle, then that’s what you call them.

When a child is given a name by their parents, it becomes an important part of who that child is; it becomes part of their identity. Teachers should not be the ones to take that away from them.

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