Shakespeare is quoted as saying, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Juliet was trying to reassure Romeo that it wouldn’t matter what he was called. She would still marry him.
The quote is often used to imply that objects or people can be called different names but are still fundamentally the same – we are not defined by our names.
This is untrue. Naming children is an important ritual for many cultures; passing down family or tribal names and choosing a name that will stand the infant in good stead in the future.
Names are therefore an inherent part of our identities as people.
Occasionally, families will ‘westernise’ their children’s names. This is to help their children fit in to a new culture. And it is also to spare teachers and wider society the embarrassment of not being able to pronounce phonetically difficult or challenging names.
Once, in my early years of teaching, a pupil called Mythylypriya arrived at school. She was brought into the classroom where I was working as an EAL support teacher.
I can still remember the class teacher’s reaction when they were introduced, and she saw the 5-year old’s name written on the admissions form.
“Can we call her Priya?” she asked.
Mythylypriya’s parents nodded acquiescently.
At that moment I felt quietly dismayed.
Here was a family, escaping persecution, newly arrived in the UK. Everything was alien to them. And the first thing the class teacher wanted to do was abbreviate their daughter’s name for her own convenience.
I wrote Mythylipriya’s name down on a piece of paper. Every time I worked with her, I used her full name. It took a couple of goes to pronounce it properly, but she helped by repeating it patiently if I got it wrong.
It is the only name that I have ever come across with three ‘y’s in it. And the memory always reminds me, after many, many years of teaching, that how we meet and welcome new families of any heritage background into our schools, is enormously important.
Names do matter. The names we are given at birth, or the ones we chose to adopt as we go through life, are important to us. They identify who we are. They say things about us, our parents, our families, and our cultures.
Getting our pupils’ names correct is not optional. It is not about our convenience as teachers.
It is about inclusivity.
It is about recognising the tremendous power we wield as teachers and using it to empower our pupils.
We empower by knowing, recognising, and encouraging our pupils.
And that means taking the time to know, spell and pronounce their names correctly.