How To Learn All Your Students’ Names on the First Day of School

Without requiring a brain transplant.

Learning Student Names

I do a lot of things wrong as a teacher. Sometimes I leave the same bulletin board up for nine months. I have a bad habit of stealing students’ pencils when they come to me for help (the students, not the pencils). I make math-related grading errors ALL OF THE TIME. When I read emails, I immediately forget everything they just said. I say things in class that, taken out of context, sound like they were uttered by a Disney villain or maybe just a total crazy person. But I’m really good at learning student names on the first day.

I teach secondary, so this is actually kind of a feat. One year, I had no fewer than thirty kids per class, so with six classes, that’s one hundred fifty names! (See? My math is terrible.)

Here are all my secrets.

What you need:

  • 1 piece of cardstock for each student
  • 1 thick, dark marker for each student (or partner or table if you’ve got a marker shortage)


What you do:

  1. Greet each student at the door, ask for their name, and check it off on your roster sheet. Then look back and forth between their written name on the sheet and their face to cement the relationship in your brain. That’ll get you at least five names down right away.
  2. Have students make “tent” name tags by folding the cardstock in thirds and writing their first name in LARGE CAPITAL LETTERS on the part that faces you. These are instructions you can put on the board so students can start right away while you’re checking people in. I like to set a timer because I’m a control freak. Also, this is a good time to demonstrate high standards. If they make a silly nametag or write really small, ask them nicely to do it again.
  3. During the first part of class (going over rules, procedures, syllabus, whatever), make it a point to use as many names as possible. I like to make things extra weird and repeat each name three times.  “Can someone read the next paragraph out loud for me? Yes, Luis-Luis-Luis.”
  4. When you’re done with your first day spiel, announce that you’re going to give yourself three minutes to practice and then test yourself on names. At this time, have students keep their name tags up. Run through everyone’s names repeating them out loud and take a good look at everyone’s face. At this stage I sort of pretend I’m an athlete warming up for a big competition and crack my knuckles, stretch, etc., but feel free to behave normally if you wish.
  5. Have students put their name tags face down so you can’t see their names and see how long it takes for you to get them all correct. Your students will be surprisingly into it, and you will surprise yourself at how quickly you learn them all (it usually takes me less than five minutes if I’ve been using their names during class). If you have enough time, have your students time you to see how fast you can do it. Then open the floor to see if any students want to take a crack at the name game!
  6. At the end of class, tell students to keep their desk tags and bring them to class for the rest of the week. You’ll forget some the following day, but by Friday you may even know last names!

What are your tricks for learning student names? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, the problem with name-shaming.

How to Learn All Your Students’ Names the First Day of School