PBS NewsHour Weekend anchor Hari Sreenivasan hosted a Google hangout recently to discuss new research that shows mispronunciation of a student’s name can have a long-lasting impact both within and outside of the classroom.
“What we are trying to understand are the ways in which this affects how students feel about themselves, their families, their communities and their identities,” said Rita Kohli, assistant professor at the University of California-Riverside, who has studied the long-term, psychological harm to students whose names are constantly mispronounced.
The very idea of having a “tough name” is culturally relevant, Kohli said. When teachers give up on trying to learn a name that may sound foreign to them, they’re showing that they center the classroom around their own cultural experience. That framing can be damaging to students who feel like they don’t belong, and can cause later problems for these students in the workplace and adult interactions.
Corey Mitchell, who wrote about Kohli’s research for Education Week, agreed that there’s potential for a much larger conversation on the long-term effects.
Mariama Richards, director of progressive and multicultural education at Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York City, said that her primary classroom goal is always to make sure that students feel heard and understood for their whole humanity, and to not see them as just a watered down representation of their personal history.
“It’s not just about the name, it’s about [recognizing] all that [a student] brings to the classroom every day,” Richards said.
Kohli agreed. Validation of a student’s name is, by extension, validation of their entire culture, and mispronunciation—even if it is inadvertent—dismisses that culture’s place in the classroom, she said. “It sends a message that you’re not important, and that the teacher’s convenience—whether its conscious or unconscious—is more important than the identity of a child.”
Richards also noted that forcing a child to assimilate by choosing an Americanized version of their given name implies their culture is less valuable. Over time, students can disconnect further from their culture when, in reality, exposure to differing cultures in the classroom helps develop students’ worldviews and has been shown to improve critical thinking.
For more perspectives on this issue, here’s a selection from the Twitter conversation surrounding #ActuallyMyNameIs:
-- Christina Marie (@Ambelleina) May 27, 2016
-- Intentions from L.A. (@laminimalist) May 25, 2016
-- Kenya Downs (@LiveFromKenya) May 25, 2016
-- camila m. rodriguez (@camilatweets) May 23, 2016
-- hermione granger (@simplysarahi) May 20, 2016
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Air: A Video Blog blog.