I know from the looks that my foreign colleagues have given me over the years that the majority of them think that I'm crazy when they discover that I go to the trouble of remembering the names of all my students wherever I teach. Just last week I was ‘caught' by a fellow-teacher as I was in this very process and he asked me, "Is all that really worth it?" My reply, which has now become a standard one, is, "I can't afford not to do it."
Bad school memories
When I was a schoolboy many years ago I had a social studies teacher called Mr Osborne (who we affectionately called "Chatsworth") who taught me for two consecutive years. He never knew my name, or if he did, he never once called me by it. If he wanted me to answer a question he would point to me and say, "You".
If I voluntarily answered a question (which was very rare) he would look at me and say, "Yes?" If I walked past him during the course of a day I would courteously look at him and say, "Sir". He would just nod his head and keep walking.
It wouldn't be true to say that I hated Mr Osborne but I definitely didn't like him. None of his students liked him. I remember being interested in the content of his social studies classes but I did not look forward to attending his lessons. I felt uncomfortable being in the same room as him and I would have much preferred studying something else if given the chance. All of this was simply because I had a teacher who could not be bothered to even know who I was.
I've never forgotten Mr Osborne and how he made me feel: worthless, insignificant, nothing. I had other teachers, of course, and I did not like some of their subjects (such as mathematics) but, while not showing a great interest in me as a person, these teachers at least made me feel welcome as an important member of their class by knowing who I was.
This simple fact made me look forward to their classes, even if it was the last one on a Friday afternoon. Some teachers knew my brothers whom they had taught before me and mentioned that, again having a positive effect on me.
Why I wanted to learn names
When I was learning how to become a TEFL teacher I was advised to never point to a student, instead using an open-handed gesture. I readily understood the reason behind this and made a note to never forget it. Thanks to Mr Osborne I also made a note to make sure I remembered the names of my students, which I thought at the time was a good idea.
I was not content to have a list of names of the students in my classes written in English that matched up with their number in the class so that I could refer to it whenever I needed to speak to them or to give them marks.
I wanted to be able to say hello to my students whenever they said hello to me and call them by their name. I wanted them to know that I had made the effort to remember their name and to make them feel that I took my job seriously enough to do this and that I was not simply a farang just passing through.
Build rapport and good relationships
It's never been my intention to become best friends with any of my students but I truly believe that a good relationship and strong rapport with students is absolutely vital in order to begin being an effective teacher. If I ever expect to receive the respect of my students (which is all the time) then the obvious thing for me to do is give respect to them as early as possible. You have to give it so you can earn it and knowing the names of my students is an important first step.
I began with the aforementioned list of names that I initially used as a reference in my classes, to take attendance and to use whenever I spoke to a student. I had hoped that this would assist me to memorise all their names but as I was only seeing my students once per week it was next to impossible matching the names to the faces each time I saw them. It was when I began taking photographs of my students' faces that I was able to make huge strides towards finally knowing them all by sight.
After my teaching stint in the Middle East I came back to Thailand with many possessions including a fancy SLR digital camera (although any digital camera could obviously be used). I devoted a lesson to taking pictures of every student (which only one has ever refused to have taken, by the way), eliciting as much information as I can from them about cameras and ‘digital' and asking them to think why a foreign English teacher is taking photographs when he should be teaching English.
Later, I upload the photos to my computer, organise them into classes and I'm even able to write the students' names in Thai on their pictures. Then in my own time I go over each picture again and again as if they were flashcards. I can do this anywhere and at anytime and within a few minutes I have remembered most of their names. Only their nicknames, of course! I try to pick out a feature of those students whose names I struggle to remember and use that to help me, too (I won't go into details but it's usually something prominent or unusual).
The effect of knowing the names of my students is worth ten times the effort I make to do so. The students show surprise and then real delight when they enter our classroom and I say hello to them by their name before they say it to me.
The other tremendous benefit is the control it gives me in class. To call out a student's name to get their attention and then ask them to stop talking or to turn around is infinitely more effective than calling out, "Excuse me. Excuse me! No, not you, yes you! Can you stop talking, please?"
Wherever I go in the school I can recognise my students and say hello and ask them how they are (always encouraging them not to recite, "Fine thank you, and you?") and maybe ask how their weekend was, sparking a conversation. Again, it's amazing how a conversation will begin after I refer to a student by their name as normally they are very reluctant to do so.
I'm now halfway through my third week at a new school and I'm still in the process of learning my students' names but I have the names of two English Program classes completed and need to finish off "only" about 600 Muttayom 6 students before I'm done.
At the end of February I won't be teaching any of the M.6 students again so is it worth the effort for me to spend time learning all their names? If I want to create a good rapport with my students, show them that I care about them and be able to grade them accurately and fairly, as well as being able to effectively control my classroom, "I can't afford not to."