With each new school year, teachers everywhere face the daunting task of learning the names of all their new students. Whether you teach a single grade level class of 20 students or you teach multiple classes of art, music, or PE and see the entire school every week, you’ll want to learn your students’ names fast…. and the faster the better!
Why is it so important to learn your students’ names fast?
I’m convinced that nothing builds trust and a positive classroom climate better than knowing your students. And being able to call them each by name is a big part of that.
When a teacher makes the effort to learn a student’s name, it shows the student they are valued and important. They learn that they matter to their teacher. Connections and strong bonds rarely develop without this. Improved behavior and a healthy classroom environment are the results, and who doesn’t want that??!
How can you learn many names quickly?
At the annual Teachers Pay Teachers conference in Nashville, I had the opportunity to quiz dozens of teaching professionals about their best tips and tricks for learning students’ names.
Repetition is key!
Throughout the tips they shared, I found a common thread of repetition using three basic strategies:
Seeing. Saying. Hearing.
Below are some suggestions you can try for each of these strategies. No single technique will work for everyone, but I hope you’ll find at least one idea you can implement to help you learn those new names fast!
1. Seeing the Names
Study your class roster before school starts. Rewrite names so they’re in A-B-C order by first name, not last. Becoming familiar with names and spellings will make matching names with faces that much easier! After you meet your students, make notes on your roster regarding pronunciation and any comments you may want to add to jog your memory. Add small photos if you have room. You can even make flashcards with a photo on one side and the student’s name on the other. Keep reviewing these until you’ve got them down!
Fold a piece of card stock in half “the hamburger way” (that would be width-wise), then fold in half again. Unfold and bend one of the folds back the other way so that all 3 folds are going the same direction. Slide one end flap under the other and tape or glue. Voila! A perfect tent!! Next have students write their names on their tents LARGE enough to be read from across the room and decorate their tent to personalize it. Bubble letters are great for decorating! Have them do this on both sides. As they work, walk around and start associating names with faces!
If your students are very mobile and don’t sit in one spot for long, it can help to have them wear name tags for the first few days (or weeks, if you only see them once a week). For very young students (grades K & 1), a name tag on their front and back can be really helpful! Reusable name badges that you pass out and collect after each class can be a huge time saver!
This is especially helpful if you see multiple groups of students and not just a single class. Some teachers seat their class in A-B-C order (by first name) until they learn students’ names. You can make notes about pronunciation here, too!
Take photos to study from
Take photos of students individually or in small groups and write their names on their photos. Make a poster and put it up where you’ll see it throughout the day. Subs will appreciate this, too!
In addition to making name tents, elementary students enjoy making acrostics (writing their name vertically and adding a descriptive adjective off to the right that starts with each of the letters of their name). Other popular name art projects to try are Kaleidoscope Lettering, Graffiti Names, Name Tangles, Stained Glass Name Designs, and Name Aliens.
Have students write their names at the top of a 3×5 card and then write something that makes them memorable below it…. a hobby, experience, proud moment, prized possession, etc. Collect these and study them!
If your school has a yearbook, study your incoming class before the new school year begins.
Label everything you can
Label books, binders, wall hooks, desks, cubbies, etc. with students’ names. The more you see a name and associate it with a student, the faster you’ll remember it.
Write names on papers first
Have students write their names on their papers first, before beginning their work, so as you walk around you’re seeing their names again and again.
2. Saying the Names
When you take roll, rather than have students answer, “Present!”, have them answer you by repeating their name. This way you not only hear it again, but you hear the correct pronunciation, too. Make sure you look up to see their face when they answer you!
Use their names often
Use their names as you greet them coming in, pass back papers, call on them in class, etc. Basically, every chance you get!
Ask for hints
If you can’t remember a student’s name, always ask! Ask them to give you a hint, and not just tell you. And in cases where they do tell you, repeat it back to them to check your pronunciation and so you can hear yourself say it again.
Have students turn their name tags over or hide their name tents as you attempt to say everyone’s name without any help. Let students have a turn after you if they want to. Make it a goal for the whole class and have a party when everyone succeeds!
3. Hearing the Names
Have students talk about their names
Ask students to introduce themselves and tell you how they got their names if they know. This can be a fun writing assignment, too. If they don’t know, have them make something up and see if their classmates can guess which stories are “fiction” and which are “non-fiction”. You can also ask students to give you a way to remember their names…. you’ll get some interesting responses! Or ask for an interesting fact or something that makes them unique. The more you learn about your students the faster their names will stick!
Say name before speaking
Have students say their names before asking or answering a question, or before speaking in morning meetings. Many college professors do this in their larger classes to help everyone learn each others’ names.
Play a “Listening Game”
Introduce yourself, then student #1 introduces himself and you, then student #2 introduces herself, plus student #1, plus you, etc. Go around the room beginning and ending with the teacher. This game reinforces the names for everyone! An extension of this is the Alliteration Game…. where each student says their name and something they like to do that begins with the same letter, for example, “I’m Sarah and I like swimming.” Then the next person repeats what the first person said and adds their own, then #3 adds theirs and repeats what #2 and #1 said, going all the way around the room. Want to extend this even further? Add a physical movement to go with each alliteration!
Play a “Silent Line-Up” Game
Without speaking have students line up in A-B-C order. When they think they’re in the correct position, have each one say their name out loud. Younger students can have a card with their name printed on it that they silently show to each other to get in the right position, then they hold up their cards and say their names aloud when they’re all in the correct order.
Have students sit on their desks as you throw a ball to them one at a time. When they catch the ball they say their name and throw the ball back to you…. another fun way to connect names with faces!
Practice and Repeat
As with anything you want to learn, practice and repetition are key!! Make it your mission and commit to learning as many names as you can each day. Tell your students how important it is to you and be upfront about it if it doesn’t come easily! Weave some of these techniques and strategies into your day and you’ll be learning those names and having fun doing it!
When it comes to learning names… the more you see them, say them, and hear them, the faster you’ll learn them! Try these ideas to help you learn your students’ names fast! What’s your favorite method for learning your new students’ names?
Ms. Jones says
I have been subbing in multiple schools throughout the entire County which consist of multiple school districts. On any given week I may teach at 4 different schools- in multiple grade levels. It’s been enough of a challenge just to find my way around each building. Although I have tried, I rarely teach in the same school, grade, or the same students often enough to remember each of them by name. Unfortunately, as a substitute, I have little to no access to any of the helpful resources you have shared and suggested. It would be highly unlikely that there would be a window of time between each class period to introduce a new activity. However, I like the name tags and the desk tents. Perhaps I will introduce this activity to the students while taking attendance. It’s a start. Thanks for your tips!
Cheryl Trowbridge says
WOW!! I can even imagine what a challenge that must be. Bless you for doing this important job!! One good thing about having SO many students, as you do, is that no one would ever expect you to know all their names. Good luck with all of this and be sure to celebrate any names that you DO remember!
Mrs. Taylor says
Thanks for reinforcing this *most* important tip! At 22 years in the public system, this tactic has always proven to be worth the effort up front. It can be a daunting task! But it pays back in spades.
I am currently at the K-5 level after teaching 6th-8th grades for 17 years (and HS for one year). In elementary art I teach nearly 100 different students every day of the week between two different schools, working with each class only once per week. That’s a LOT of budding artists to know by name, all at the same time! Which freaked me out a bit, of course.
So I almost gave up on the name recognition challenge once I landed in elementary art; besides working with so many ‘littles’ in weekly cycles, I’m now also in a wonderfully diverse area that includes many foreign-born students with colorful names that I’ve often never heard of (let alone am able to easily pronounce or spell). Including students that go by their ‘English names’, instead of their legal names of record. And kindergartners who are still learning to read and write their own names; it’s also hard for them to recognize their name aloud, if I am butchering the pronunciation.
So to make memorizing a large number of unfamiliar names manageable, I decided to turn the first roll-call with each class into a little bit of a contest, where I’m in the ‘hot seat’. I tell them I’d like to see if I can pronounce everyone’s name correctly on the first try. (“Do you guys think I can do it?!”) This takes the pressure off the handful of kids with the most unique names in each of my sections. And it seems to put them at ease. Many times I get their names right… but many times I do not! Then they are prompted to pronounce their name aloud, “to help Mrs. Taylor out”. Either way, I immediately jot down a phonetic spelling of every non-traditional name on my printed paper rosters,
while repeating each name aloud once or twice. With younger children this strategy works well.
Btw and just to clarify, I’m careful to handle things in a respectful manner, to maintain the dignity of all involved. Although I’m not announcing my tactic re: phonetic spellings (with K-5 it’s rarely questioned), on occasion they do ask about my note-taking; I’m honest about needing such a “tool” because it helps me to learn. I also will remind them how important it is to me that I know all of “my kids” by name. And IMO it provides me an appropriate opportunity to show a smidge of vulnerability, while still allowing my authority to remain intact. That’s a beautiful thing! I’m sure a lot of teachers have discovered the power of showing vulnerability; when done right it can quickly build rapport and a healthier classroom environment. At every grade level. Reminding them that you are not a computer with programmed memory is a good start!
At any rate, from those insights I then sit outside on a breezy porch or by the BBQ with my family during the first weekend of the school year, while tidying-up my handwritten notes including both spellings as needed; this is time-consuming with 15-20+ class groups in a typical related arts schedule, yes… but it reinforces their names. So it sticks in my brain. Prior to finalizing my seating charts. (I agree with that tool as well!) One additional perk after taking time to commit names to memory is that you won’t be distracted or thrown off by guessing games while you’re teaching; your confidence will reveal itself much sooner as you work with your new student groups. One less thing to juggle!
This year I will try your suggestion re: alphabetical lists by first names; even though I memorize only the first names to start off, I still had my alphabetical lists organized by last name first (why??).
During the height of Covid while teaching online (those poor 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds), my handwritten rosters were created on large poster board strips that I clipped up on a chair back alongside my monitor. I’d glance toward the phonetic spellings before calling on anyone while teaching via Google Meet, which was enormously helpful. (The large lettering seen by bleary, fatigued eyes worked wonders, too!)
Your suggestion re: name tents is spot-on as well, and I agree with Ms. Jones that it could be useful while subbing. These were a hit with my older kids, years ago. Any kind of name-art. Once complete, I’d have them store their name cards in the room to prop up for a few more classes. Worked well on a quarterly rotation when I only had 125-145 kids per cycle.
Thanks for sharing this advice, Cheryl. I’m convinced students are aware of the efforts of teachers who take the time to know them better. They get it. It makes a huge impression. And it sticks for a *long* time– run into a former student around town and they’ll be amazed if you manage to spit out their name while greeting them many years later! It’s the gift that keeps on giving, lol.
Cheryl Trowbridge says
Wow! Thank you so much for taking the time to share these insightful comments about learning names, Mrs. Taylor! When I hear about teachers like you who have SO many students’ names to learn I am always so impressed. I never had more than 250 and I thought that was a lot! I agree wholeheartedly about being able to show some vulnerability while still maintaining your authority. I know it means a lot to kids (and adults!) when they see that we care enough to learn their names, including spelling and pronouncing them. And when we’re willing to admit that it can be a challenge that we need to really work hard at, it also teaches them to have a growth mindset. There’s so much we can teach through art! Thanks again for sharing your wisdom gained through so much real-world experience!