Ajarn Street

Learn all your students' names?

Surely you can't be serious.

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.

Photographic evidence

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."

Tony Mitchell



I absolutely agree it's important to know your students' names, but these are strange times. If teaching on site you're looking at 30 odd students and you can only see half of their faces because of the dreaded face mask. Online you're looking at a bunch of avatars. We are edging towards the end of the school year and I'd be hard pressed if I knew 5 pecent of my students' names.

By cor, Bangkok (14th February 2021)

Dear Guy

If you are thinking it is kidding to even trying learning your students names then you are in the wrong profession. Every class may have 55 or 60 students but that does not mean you cannot make an effort to learn at least 10-15 students names per class. I know at least 50% of my students names and that includes their first names plus nicknames and in many cases also their surnames. And I teach around 500 students.

You are only kidding yourself if you think the students don't value you knowing what their names are. Just this afternoon I said goodbye to two students and the surprise and appreciation was written all over their faces when I greeted them by their first names. Impressions last and teachers have a significant influence on how students perceive life.

Kidding is just brushing it aside instead of tackling it head on. Make an effort at the very least.

By Bernard, Prachinburi (4th December 2013)

Learn 1800 names of students you will only meet 10 times in a semester? You gotta be kidding.

By Guy, Bkk (3rd December 2013)

Hello Chris & Bernard and thanks a lot for commenting.
You've both given me real incentive to ditch my students' nicknames and use their real names! I started today and am treating it as a real challenge, which I know they will appreciate. I think I will refer to all my Thai colleagues by their real names, too.
I'll be careful with my photos and make sure I'm not doing anything untoward - I have nothing to hide but I'd hate to get a visit from the guys in the tight brown shirts!

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (25th November 2013)

You are definitely on the right track, mate. I liked your article about copying and cheating, too, you sound honest. Which is a rarity in the EFL pool in developing countries.

If it is allowed, the students will pay no attention in class. One of the principal imperatives for them to do so, an honest evaluation system, has been foregone. You will be reduced to the sad resort of donning a clown suit, or reneging on any sorts of academic standards in terms of rigour (so many great and essential activities will become forever out of reach), because the students will not be possessed of the base mentality they are going to find out what to do, and then do it. You will, in short, be cooked.

If the reluctant learners never experience the benefits of engaging in lessons, and learning - if you cannot put them under compulsion to get a taste for serious study - this will never come to be.

Apart from, as you noted, how completely disrespectful it is to decent students to allow others to cheat, they too will give up when they see there is no point in trying hard, because there is no justice in the system.

But I just want to give the advice, most respectfully, that you should not be taking pictures of students, unless they sign a photo release form. Never mind what the 'teachers' around you might deem appropriate, this is standard practice in any reputable education system, and you seem to want to set a good example. Quite apart from that it is the sort of stuff a Mr. Swirly would do, before you land yourself in hot water.

In addition, learn the students' real names. They will respect you for it greatly. Cultural tip, the really respectable teachers always address students by their real names. It is not authoritative, it is just showing you have dignity in their eyes, and at the same time it is preventing any problems with the many students around who confuse friendliness with 'anything goes'.

Sorry if that sounded overbearing. I'm dead set serious, because you seem to have integrity.

In education theory, it is said a good teacher has 'self-efficacy'. It means they believe they can make a difference. That 'just teach the good ones' crap is a lazy man's approach. The good ones need a teacher less than the not so good ones. A good teacher shows the students with ineffective learning behaviours the way, and convinces them of its benefits.

By Chris, Somewhere (24th November 2013)

Brilliant Tony

Being from South Africa I had to learn the names of friends and colleagues in the 11 official languages in South Africa, plus the Norwegian, German, French, Moroccan, Mozambican and Malagasy nationals that I worked with before. Now I learn the first names of my P5 and P6 students. I don’t like nicknames as there always are three Beem’s and four Aom’s in one class. The students are surprised when you call them by their first names. When you address them by their first names or nicknames there is a marked increase in both respect shown to you as a farang and level of interest in learning English. So, yes, it is worth learning their names or nicknames. And to be honest, it is expected of a teacher to know who your students are, even if you teach nearly 400 students like me.

By Bernard, Prachinburi (23rd November 2013)

Thanks for the comments. I fully understand that for some it is a huge task (1800 students?) but it's not nearly as difficult as it sounds. I'm definitely a visual learner and so the photo matched with the name works for me.
I saw this quote today, by the way - 'If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.'

By Tony Mitchell, Pathumthani (23rd November 2013)

Hi Tony.

Nice idea and if I could do this I would because you do see a change in a student if you remember their name. That said I teach over 1800 students so by my math that is around three times more than yourself. So I concede this is impossible to do unless you have a small number of classes in an EP and not once a week 45-50 minute lesson like most of us in the real world.

By Dave, Bangkok (22nd November 2013)

Excellent :) I fully agree ... but it is hard when we only see each student once a week. Also our classes get changed at midterm, so that's two lots of student names to learn.... I try, but it's difficult.

By Amy, Chiang Mai (22nd November 2013)

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