I Can’t Pronounce a Student’s Name, So I Came Up With a Nickname. What’s the Problem?

Names matter.

Illustrated black, white, and orange cartoon of four students with text Okay, let's take attendance and a clipboard with names crossed out

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I teach high school, and I have this one refugee student whose name is really hard to pronounce. I tried, but I really butchered it and ended up coming up with a nickname. One of my colleagues is giving me a hard time about it. She says I’m not creating a welcoming and respectful space. That feels harsh! I really care about my students, and I’m not a bad teacher. Truly, I don’t see what the big deal is since this  student says he’s fine with the nickname. What’s the problem?
—Tongue Tied

Dear T.T.,

We’ve all struggled to pronounce someone’s name. Our ears hear one thing, and our mouths say another! Not only does it feel strange in your mouth, but it can also feel uncomfortable when you are really trying your best and not having success. It sounds like you have good intentions. It’s helpful to pause and reflect on the power and importance of learning to say someone’s name.

Let’s take a moment to think about working with refugee students. Welcoming refugee students into your classroom takes intention and effort. Remember that your new arrival students are navigating U.S. school systems often for the first time, learning English as a new language, immersed in different cultural norms, trying to make new friends, and more. They may have experienced various forms of trauma in their journey to the United States. Many refugee students have been in refugee camps for a long time with limited access to schooling, poor housing, possible separation from family, and food insecurity.

Making the effort to get to know your newcomer students is essential. And it all starts with their names. Learning student names is one of the most important community-building strategies we have as educators. Names are springboards for learning the stories of our students’ lives. One way to begin is to find out what students know about their names. This builds strong connections, values multiple perspectives, and shows a deep level of care.


It might take some extra effort to get your students’ names to flow off your tongue. Try meeting with your refugee student one on one. Be humble and stick with it. Your newcomer students are immersed in a new language all day long and feel wobbly. Your empathy and compassion go a long way. Consider video recording the student saying their name so you can practice and see the articulation of the sounds. Once you learn the name, write it phonetically to help yourself remember.

Let’s also think about the possible effects of mispronouncing names in the classroom. Whose name is most often mispronounced? Our multilingual learners and students of color face this issue most frequently. Your intentional efforts send a message that THEY matter and that YOU are a learner, too.

We may think that nicknames are the answer, but there can be some unintended consequences of a teacher giving a student a nickname. Names are connections to our families, identity, and culture. Imagine if each teacher gave the SAME student a DIFFERENT nickname. How would that feel? Some advocates say that learning to say someone’s name is a form of allyship.

I’m sending along lots of patience and self-compassion on your journey to learn how to say your students’ names. It will take deliberate practice for sure. Psychologist A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person … It is a sign of courtesy … When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected and more important.”

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m so delighted to have been offered the job of my dreams as a third and fourth grade gifted and talented teacher. However, I was recently diagnosed with cancer, and we haven’t figured out my treatment plan yet. I just had surgery, and I’ll need some recovery time. Life feels upside down and inside out. I’m having a hard time focusing, and sometimes I’m overcome with worry. Teaching is an important way for me to connect and find meaning in life, so I really want to keep working. My hope is to be healthy and have this dream job. What are my options?  —Cancer Sucks

Dear C.S.,

Sending you patience and love during your recovery and healing. Hang in there! Sometimes thinking too far into the future can feel like too much. It might help to try focusing on small moments at a time. You are going through some major challenges right now, and it’s a lot to manage.

It’s important to listen to your own intuition and decide what feels right to you. Choose whether you want to wait and sign the contract first before letting leadership know about your health. Or you can inform them now. Either way, you have legal rights. The Family Medical Leave Act and Federal Rehabilitation Act protect you from being discriminated against at work because of your cancer diagnosis. You have the right to take time off to heal and also receive accommodations.

Let’s think through some possible next steps:

1. Focus on your health. Explore your treatment options. Rest and recover. Be gentle to yourself. Work will be there when you are ready.

2. Take advantage of cancer support groups. You are not alone! Hearing how others have navigated a cancer diagnosis and are moving forward can be meaningful. So many people have experienced cancer and want to help you get through this.

3. Communicate with the leadership and be upfront about how you are a GREAT fit for this new position. Remind your current or new leadership team that you will need grace and time as you recover.

4. If it feels more manageable to stay in your current position, consider that option. The familiar might be a balm as you deal with so many unknowns in your life. The established relationships with your current team may feel comforting and supportive.

4. Reach out to Human Resources to find out more about your family and medical leave options. Taking the time you need will help your health in the long run.

5. Let your health care provider know that you are considering work options during your recovery. You might want to schedule treatments near the end of the week, so you have the weekend to rest.

6. If you feel like you want to isolate yourself and anxiety and depression are taking hold, consider talking to a professional to manage the intense emotions that you may be experiencing.

7.  Ask your friends, families, neighbors, and coworkers for help. Please don’t feel like you are a burden to others. Remember that you can get through this!

Wishing you good health and happiness one moment at a time.

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I’m a high school English teacher, so correct grammar is important to me. I am super careful in my own communications to make sure that they are error-free. I am so over all these teachers and staff members who use poor grammar in their emails, announcements, and posters in the school. It’s like they don’t even care. I’m not trying to be a prude, but I want to make sure our students have good role models and examples. Is it something that should be addressed or ignored? —Grammar Stickler

Dear G.S.,

Thanks for bringing up this issue that so many of us notice but often don’t address. I often wonder and feel similar things as you as a teacher who is hyperaware of language. Most people advise to move on and ignore, and I say it depends!

Schools are places where educators are role models. The way we communicate, what we say, and how we say it all matter. Sometimes we express ourselves in more informal, context-dependent ways. We may use more everyday language when talking about what we did over the weekend. While other times, we use more precise and academic language to communicate which character from a text resonated most with us. Language falls on a continuum with every day, spoken language on one end and formal, written language on the other.

School offices, hallways, classrooms, playgrounds, emails, and announcements are all ripe with opportunities to model and develop language. All students are working on expressing themselves in clear, coherent, effective, and nuanced ways. Also, it’s important to take into account that in 2020 there were approximately 4.9 million students categorized as  English Language Learners in the U.S. So, let’s consider schools as a place to build effective use of language for ALL students.

We definitely need to give feedback about incorrect grammar, conventions, and word choice when the message is in the public eye. When you notice grammar and language mistakes in public-facing communication, have the courage to speak up. The thing to consider is HOW you will give the feedback. Sending the administration assistant an email calling attention to some language that needs fixing up is one approach. I think we all agree that giving feedback about mistakes is part of learning. Wouldn’t you want the feedback if you were sending out communication to families?

With that said, if you are noticing errors in emails and informal communication or conversations, it’s less clear about what to do. You can let it go and move on. Most people have a “pick your battle” kind of attitude. Errors in an email to teachers might not be one of the things you decide to not worry about. Or you can gently bring up what you are noticing. You might extend yourself and offer to proofread emails, bulletins, or whatever other forms of communication.

The thing is, we all have biases. There are many types of biases, and some may creep up when they are errors in speaking and writing. There is something called the Halo Effect, which describes how your overall impression of a person influences how you feel and think about them. So, if your principal is sending emails that have errors week after week, this might affect the leader’s credibility and instructional leadership, especially for an educator that focuses on ELA.

It’s also important to remember that language is dynamic and is evolving over time. What we once considered incorrect, may now become common usage. For example, think of the way pronoun usage has changed as we consider the gender identity continuum. With language, we inform, influence, negotiate, hurt, express compassion, and so much more. Language is powerful!

Dear WeAreTeachers:
I have a coworker who will start a fight if you disagree with anything she says. It immediately turns into rude comments and yelling. One such disagreement led to her yelling at me and pointing at my face. I genuinely feel that she is and has been for the past three years, creating an unsafe and hostile work environment. Can I write a complaint to HR? Are there consequences against you for writing such a complaint? What are my options? —Bye Bye Bully

Dear B.B.B,

You are bringing up a widespread issue! It’s so intense and upsetting to be around people who are inconsiderate and aggressive. Yelling rude comments is NOT OK. I imagine that showing up to work is sometimes really challenging and may trigger anxiety and unease.

Hostile work environments are unfortunately something many of us have had to deal with. Me included. Thankfully, there are legal protections for all of us. The Legal Dictionary defines a hostile work environment as an “unwelcome or offensive behavior in the workplace, which causes one or more employees to feel uncomfortable, scared, or intimidated in their place of employment.”  As educators, we address and stop bullying head-on with our students, and we need to do the same with adults, too.

The first thing to do is document what is going on. Bullying brings up so many emotional responses, and it might be hard to remember the details when the time comes to speak up. So, jot down the date and notes of words, nonverbal communication, and actions you have seen and experienced with this coworker. Then, when you communicate with your leadership and Human Resources department, your messaging will be clear and specific.

You can make your information anonymous if you feel fearful of revenge. Or you can share what you have experienced and observed. There may be situations where you do have the courage to speak up and share about the bullying you are enduring, and the leadership does not respond or believe you. Don’t stop there! Persevere and talk to HR. Reach out to your union representative, who can help put together a grievance. Check your state government complaint procedures for guidance. There is specific support for educator misconduct.

Allowing individuals to bully others at schools has a negative effect on students, too. Bullying can create emotional and psychological trauma. Stressed, nervous, anxious teachers are not able to show up as their best version of themselves. Our students deserve the best learning conditions possible, and educators need healthy working conditions, too. Sending hopeful thoughts that this situation deescalates and comes to a resolution.

Do you have a burning question? Email us at askweareteachers@weareteachers.com.

Dear WeAreTeachers,
I work with two autistic third graders, and it feels like my principal is out to get me. I’m in a certification program, and my evaluator gave me good reviews. She even signed off that I was successful. However, my principal said I was unsuccessful and not yet a proficient teacher, so she installed a camera in my classroom. She wrote me up because she saw me on camera working on my computer. She said I was not interacting with kids, and my students were unsupervised. I’ve had several instances where my principal is watching me on camera and tells me to do something different. As a result, I feel disrespected and intimidated. Also, to add to this stress, I’m 37 weeks pregnant. How do I get my principal to trust me?

Illustration: Jennifer Jamieson

I Can't Pronounce a Student's Name, So I Came Up With a Nickname. What's the Problem?