Equity & Diversity

Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep

By Corey Mitchell — May 10, 2016 7 min read
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When people come across Michelle-Thuy Ngoc Duong’s name, they often see a stumbling block bound to trip up their tongues.

The 17-year-old sees a bridge.

A bridge spanning her parents’ journey from Vietnam to the United States.

A bridge connecting the U.S.-born teen to Vietnamese culture.

A bridge to understanding.

“My name is where I come from,” Michelle-Thuy Ngoc said. “It’s a reminder of hope.”

A junior at Downtown College Prep Alum Rock High School, a San Jose, Calif.-based charter school, Michelle-Thuy Ngoc (Michelle knock twee) is among the students backing “My Name, My Identity,” a national campaign that places a premium on pronouncing students’ names correctly and valuing diversity.

The campaign—a partnership between the National Association for Bilingual Education, the Santa Clara, Calif., County Office of Education, and the California Association for Bilingual Education—focuses on the fact that a name is more than just a name: It’s one of the first things children recognize, one of the first words they learn to say, it’s how the world identifies them.

For students, especially the children of immigrants or those who are English-language learners, a teacher who knows their name and can pronounce it correctly signals respect and marks a critical step in helping them adjust to school.

But for many ELLs, a mispronounced name is often the first of many slights they experience in classrooms; they’re already unlikely to see educators who are like them, teachers who speak their language, or a curriculum that reflects their culture.

“If they’re encountering teachers who are not taking the time to learn their name or don’t validate who they are, it starts to create this wall,” said Rita (ree-the) Kohli, an assistant professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California, Riverside.

It can also hinder academic progress.

A divide already exists between many English-learners and immigrant students and their native-English speaking peers. Despite a national increase in the overall graduation rate, the dropout rate for foreign-born and immigrant students remains above 30 percent, three times that of U.S.-born white students.

Before transitioning into K-12 administration, Santa Clara County Superintendent Jon Gundry taught middle and high school English-as-a-second-language classes for 16 years. Many of his students were newcomer English-learners and he made it a priority to learn the proper pronunciation of each student’s name on the first day of class.

“I was their first connection to a new culture, a new country,” Gundry said. “As a teacher, I felt that if I didn’t make an effort to pronounce their name correctly, it showed I didn’t care about who they were.”

Rendered Invisible

Effort is the biggest obstacle to learning how to correctly pronounce a person’s name; teachers have to want to do it, said Jennifer Gonzalez, a former teacher and author of the education blog Cult of Pedagogy. To even suggest that a child’s name is difficult to pronounce is problematic, she said.

Junior Michelle-Thuy Ngoc Duong poses for a photograph at Downtown College Prep Alum Rock in San Jose, Calif.

“Even the word ‘difficult’ is a pretty loaded word,” Gonzalez said. “It’s only difficult because it’s culturally different.”

As a kindergarten student in 1950s Brooklyn, Carmen Fariña, a native-Spanish speaker, had a teacher who marked her absent every day for weeks because she didn’t raise her hand during roll call. The teacher assumed Fariña was being defiant, but the future New York City schools chancellor never heard her name called; the teacher had repeatedly failed to pronounce it correctly, including rolling the r’s.

“Mispronouncing a student’s name essentially renders that student invisible,” Fariña said during a keynote address at the National Association for Bilingual Education annual conference in March.

Kohli produced a study with Daniel Solórzano, a professor of education and Chicano studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, on microaggressions, the subtle slights that are painfully obvious and hurtful to the person receiving them, but unintended and unnoticed by the person saying them. The work, “Teachers Please Learn Our Names! Racial Microaggressions and the K-12 Classroom,” is littered with stories of students who endured shame, anxiety, or embarrassment, and sometimes a mix of all three, when their names were called in class.

There’s the tale of a Portland, Ore.-area student with a traditional Chinese name who had her name garbled by a vice principal during an honors ceremony. Set to present the student with an award, the principal laughed at his mistake, drawing chuckles from the audience.

Sophomore Keilani Ferraz poses for a photograph at Downtown College Preparatory Alum Rock in San Jose.

To avoid embarrassment, the student slumped in her seat, refusing to rise to receive the prestigious award. She later skipped her graduation.

The mispronunciation wasn’t an isolated event. Having endured years of slights, she felt the need to become invisible long before the principal’s laughter marked the tipping point.

The woman, who went on to become an educator, changed her first name to ‘Anita.’

“If someone mispronounces your name once as a high school student, you might correct them,” said Kohli, whose parents immigrated to the United States from India. “But if this has been your entire existence in education, what do you do?”

Kohli’s own brother had a teacher mispronounce his traditional South Asian name, Sharad (shu-rudth) as Sharub during a 9th grade class. The teacher and the students decided it was easier to call him Shrub, and it stuck for the rest of high school. The nickname forced him to check part of his identity at the door.

Michelle-Thuy Ngoc didn’t always embrace her full name, figuring that it would make other people uncomfortable. For years, she ignored the Vietnamese half of her first name, simply going by Michelle. The order in which Vietnamese names are spoken differs from English.

“I came to accept [my full name] over time,” she said.

Freshman Francis Alecz Deloso poses for a photograph at Downtown College Preparatory Alum Rock in San Jose.

Building Bridges

If students have teachers who share their cultural backgrounds, they’re more likely to hear their names pronounced correctly. But while the diversity of the nation’s public school student body has exploded in the last few decades, the number of African-American, Latino, and Asian teachers hasn’t kept pace.

Gonzalez, a former teacher in school districts in Kentucky and Maryland, said she often observed a ‘these people’ attitude from her mostly white female colleagues.

“They approached it like ‘It’s your fault for having a weird name,’” Gonzalez said.

To some degree, Gonzalez understands the struggle students face. She grew up with a Russian surname, Yurkosky, that befuddled teachers and classmates. She said it rhymes with “her-pots-ski,” minus the “t” sound in pots.

“But I did not experience all the other stuff and other ways that a person can feel discriminated against,” said Gonzalez, who is white.

Kohli, a former Oakland Unified School District teacher, recommends that K-12 educators identify and expand their cultural limits and recognize the influence they wield over a student’s sense of self. While frustration or confusion may seem like a natural response when a teacher faces an unfamiliar name, it can leave a “lasting impact on the way that child sees themselves and their culture,” the study’s authors argue.

Butchered names are not just a problem for English-learners and immigrants; students from a number of cultural backgrounds have their names garbled or ridiculed. Hawaiian and African-American students, with names that link to their ancestry, also shared stories of how constant mispronunciations made them feel uncomfortable with their names.

Mocking Names?

In an extreme case, a teacher in Wayne Township, N.J. lost her tenure status and job in 2015 for mocking a student’s name on Facebook. Several letters in the student’s name spelled out a profane word, legal documents show.

More often, the mocking is more direct and reflexive: laughing off pronunciation, asking the student to take on a nickname, or making a spectacle of their name, Kohli said.

Sophomore Kashmir Perez poses for a photograph at Downtown College Preparatory Alum Rock in San Jose.

“It matters what you do when you’re in front of a child and struggling with their name,” Kohli said. “Is it framed as my inability to say someone’s name or is it framed as the student doing something to make your life more difficult?”

Michelle-Thuy Ngoc attends Downtown College Prep, a 210-student high school that primarily serves first generation, low-income Latino students.

“We’re taking the time to understand each person’s story,” said assistant principal Moises Buhain. “It’s as simple as starting with a name.”

As part of a social media campaign, the “My Name, My Identity” initiative is seeking name stories with the #mynamemyid hashtag. The push is personal for Yee Wan, the national association’s president and the director of multilingual education services for the Santa Clara County, Calif., office of education.

Wan came to the United States as an adolescent English-learner, and almost immediately faced pressure from instructors to adopt an “American name” to replace her given name, which means “warm friendship” in Cantonese.

Gundry and Wan developed “My Name My Identity” after hearing a principal share a story about his effort to build connections with English-language learners in school, then feeling the push fall flat when he mispronounced the students’ names at graduation.

“As educators, we have the power to bring awareness to valuing diversity ... so that all of our students will feel included,” Wan said.

Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of Education Week as Bungling Student Names: A Slight That Stings

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