Learn Their Names, Learn Their Story

In fifth grade, my teacher was firm, but loving. She played the harp, had emerald green eyes, and read aloud Tuck Everlasting to our class. We rapped about rainforests, memorized the Fifty Nifty United States, and kept chameleons in aquariums (except for the one that escaped, making for a frantic morning search around the classroom!). I loved being in her class, but every day, the whole grade switched to different teachers for reading. Despite being an enthusiastic reader at home, I dreaded my reading teacher’s class from the beginning, all because of one thing. She refused to learn my name.

My name is Aliza.
It is derived from Hebrew.
Depending on the etymology, it means “joyful” or “oath of God”.
There are not many of us. I have only met one other Aliza, in person, in my life.
My name is pronounced “ah-LEE-zah”.
It rhymes with (The Leaning Tower of) Pisa and (The Pyramids of) Giza. Caesar, if you’re from Boston.

My entire life, I have heard my name pronounced incorrectly. Alyssa, Alisa, Alizay, Elise, Azalea, Aliva, Liza, Allie, Eliza (thanks Hamilton!). I empathize with the harried baristas, well-meaning teachers, and hopeful telemarketers as they bite their lips and take a stab at my name out loud. If it’s wrong, not to worry. I say “Thank you. It’s ah-LEE-zah.” (Although the telemarketers get some version of “I’m sorry. Eliza isn’t here right now. She’s out with Angelica and Peggy at a revel with some rebels on this hot night.”)

So, imagine my experience as a shy, rule-following, teacher-pleasing 10 year old when my reading teacher looked at my name on her attendance sheet, wrinkled her nose, and tried…“Alisa”. Correcting her, “It’s Aliza, with a Z.” She tried again. Man, Zs are difficult! Giving up all too soon, she spoke words that have stuck with me to this day:

“Ack! That’s too hard. I love Charlotte’s Web, so I’m going to call you Charlotte.”

She nicknamed me after one of literature’s most beloved characters, and Charlotte is a lovely name, but there is one problem. It is not MY name. Embarrassed, I cried the whole bus ride home that afternoon. When I told my parents that night, they encouraged me to tell her I did not like that name. It took every fiber of bravery saved up over my entire life to walk up to her soon after, surrounded by her favorite students, to say: “I don’t like being called Charlotte. It’s not my name.” Her response? An eyebrow raise, a smirk, and

“Oh! You don’t like Charlotte? Then I’ll call you Wilbur.”

A pig. A boy.

I suffered in silence, afraid to speak up again, to correct or share my hurt feelings with this adult. Too introverted to take the risk. Too anonymous to overcome my fears of becoming an original human with a name again. So I faded into the background for the rest of the year to survive her class.

Names are more than just words. They are an intangible tattoo of a person’s identity. They represent tradition and heritage, originality and creativity, honor and hope. Our name is the first thing that ever belongs to us in this world. Receiving a name is a ceremony, a rite of passage, in many religions and cultures. Being Jewish, I had a baby naming, where my Hebrew name, Havalah Shira, was bestowed. My Catholic dad chose his confirmation name, Paul. Names are a clue to identity, an invitation to others to learn more. They help cultivate a sense of self and can embody who we are and what we want to become.

Names have stories. They honor family members, here and gone. They reference favorite characters in literature and films. They allude to memories, feelings, places, and inspirations. Years ago, I had a student whose parents named their five kids with anagrams of their father’s first name. If you are like me, your name was chosen because your parents liked it and thought it to be original. The story of your name might just start with you.

Names can change. Whether by force or by choice, they transform and adjust. Names have inherent power and meaning. Name-calling bullies, dehumanizes, and denigrates others. To show respect to others, learn their names.

When you know someone’s name, it is the entry point to knowing that person more deeply. When you learn your students’ names, you acknowledge their existence. You convey to them “I see you. You are important to me. I value your story.” Learning their names is the first step in growing trust, rapport, relationships, and equitable classroom communities.

It’s as easy as:

  1. On the first day of school, ask students how to pronounce their names. Ask them to teach you and insist on taking the time to get it right.
  2. Ask students what they prefer to be called. Do they have a nickname? Does Christopher prefer Chris? Does Jasmine feel comfortable with Jazz?
  3. Have multiples of the same name in your class? Allow Sophia and Sofia, and Jaxon and Jackson to steer a conversation with you about how to avoid confusion in using their names aloud. Will you use last initials? A nickname? And if Jaxon and Jackson prefer their name and nothing else, that is what you accept and honor.
  4. Start every morning (or class period) at the door outside of your classroom to greet your students by name: “Good morning, Dejah!”, “Love that new haircut, Henry!”, “Oooh, what are you reading, Ahmed?”, “Mia! How was swim practice last night?”
  5. Whether through a formal project or stolen moments, take time to ask students about their names: how they were named and what their name means to them.
  6. If it’s your own name that throws the curveball, remember to kindly correct, be assertive, and offer opportunities for others to practice and learn it. I put the pronunciation of my name in my Twitter profile.

Many years later, near the end of summer, I saw that teacher in a restaurant. In the fantasy scenario in my head, I would have walked up to her and said:

To my dad, I’m Leezie.
To my mom, I’m Ali (ah-LEE).
To my nieces and nephews, I’m Auntie Leez.
To my high school softball teammates, I’m Al.
To my coach, I’m Z.
To my Deaf Education professors in college, I’m the hand sign for the letter “A” with a twist on my cheek.
To my students, I’m Mrs. Werner.
To you, I’m Aliza. It rhymes with Giza. Please learn it.

Instead, I walked mindfully into my classroom that new school year ready to learn the names of 22 young people. Pronouncing our students’ names accurately and respectfully is a true welcome into our classrooms. They hear you speak their names and their hearts ignite. Their confidence grows. Their dignity is defended.

Learn their names, learn their story.