When teachers forget how to listen

With the new American school year either poised to open or already entering its fifth or sixth day (depending on local practices), many classrooms are hearing the voice of just one of the room’s occupants. Teachers need to manage both their students’ learning opportunities and their interactive behaviors and, most typically, this is achieved in the 21st century by word of mouth: orally delivered directions, admonitions, and that warning shot of calling out a particular student by name.

Or calling out some syllables that the teacher is has decided suits the need for a name as well as does the actual name of the student. In the multilingual, multiethnic classrooms—and even in the comparatively homogenous one in which not everyone bears a three- to five-letter moniker shared by generations of English speakers—the expert in what to call the students isn’t the teacher. The wise would-be classroom manager simply asks. And then listens to what the student with eleven syllables and only four consonants pronounces.

Comedian Negin Farsad includes a compelling memory of how to disrespect student names in her audiobook memoir, How to Make White People Laugh (Hachette, 2016). As she clearly pronounces it, “Negin” should be straightforward for even the most Anglophonic teacher. Yet I know it’s no exaggeration on the author-narrator’s part that she suffered, along with the earliest throes of adolescence, the teacher who insisted on being so stumped that she dubbed her student “Noodle” rather than try to listen to what her name is.

Some years ago, Jennifer Gonzalez included an interview with a Bosnian former student, along with straightforward reasons and methods for getting students’ names right, on her site, Cult of Pedagogy. “How We Pronounce Student Names, and Why It Matters” (14 April 2014). Since the entry comes in both the form of a text essay and a podcast, you can read it with either your eyes or your ears.

As classroom management, and mangling of names, so can go lazy recording efforts. Gonzalez’s post points to Tracy Clayton’s fingering of media figures who try to brush aside actors’ names by shortening them—if the actors happen to have complex names and also aren’t white. In the realm of audiobooks, I just rejected a title in which the narrator mangled a significant given name in spite of the fact that its pronunciation—by the name’s owner—is readily available in an array of YouTube videos. In this case, too, ethnic lines happened to cross between narrator and name-holder, but, at the heart of the matter, the problem here is the narrator didn’t listen to the name’s owner before bungling its pronunciation. Or listened and decided that the name’s owner couldn’t be right about how to pronounce the name?

Yes, that happens, too: teachers and others who respond to a name’s owner offering the correct pronunciation with a rejoinder along the lines of “That can’t be right. It must be ….” Well, just no. Look. Ask. Listen. And repeat until you can respect the name-holder by showing you know whose name it is.

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