How to Connect with your Students – Learn their Names

Have you ever struggled to remember the names of your students? 

Have you given up on (or simply by-passed) the piece about learning your students’ names at a workshop or summer school or in a school classroom. 

If you were asked to introduce them at the final concert, would you struggle to name them all individually?

A teacher recently told me that this was actually one of the things he worried most about in his teaching. He felt that, by not being able to remember his students’ names, he wasn’t fully connecting with them. 

And he’s right.  

Addressing a person by their name creates a relationship. It’s a connection. An affirmation. A recognition. It’s respectful. 

“One of the most important things a teacher can do is use the names of his or her students. Using a student’s name evokes such power, it’s almost mystical. It’s an incantation, and enchantment. There’s a reason why some demons in ancient stories lose their power if you learn their names, or why if you say a creature’s name three times, s/he’ll show up. Our names are as intimate as our identities. They call us. We answer to them.”

– Ken Lindblom, 

When we teach the same people over and over again we do, of course, get to know them – by name – over time. But, as traditional music teachers, we often find that we are moving between groups of students (e.g. if we are moving between schools, or teaching summer schools back to back over several weeks) and it can be quite challenging to keep tabs on all the new faces – and the names. 

So, how can we get better at this? Here are some ideas.

1. Don’t let yourself off the hook

It’s easy to simply tell yourself, “oh, I’m terrible at remembering names” – and to not even bother trying! Being able to remember names is a skill like any other, and so it takes work and practice. Commit to working on this skill. It really will make a difference!

2. Give it time

Make sure to always give time to have your students introduce themselves. Then, pay attention. Like REALLY pay attention. I know that sometimes, 5 minutes after I hear someone’s name I can’t remember it – and generally it’s because I was only half listening. So, listen with intention.

3. Repetition

Repeat the student’s name RIGHT AWAY, and as OFTEN as you can in the first 5-10 minutes of meeting them. For example, after they introduce themselves as, say, Mary, you say, “hi Mary, it’s very nice to meet you.’ Then, as you go around the class, say things like “we have just heard from John, and Pat, and Maria and Mary, and now, what’s your name.” This helps you to really reinforce the names for yourself at this point. Solidify the info.

4. Name games

Play a name game. Here are some tried and tested examples:

Basic Name Game 
This game works when students don’t yet know everyone else’s names.

The class sits in a circle, rolling a ball (or throwing it) from one to another. Each child tells the class their name and something about themselves – a random fact OR something about their music (e.g. ‘I’ve played fiddle for x years’, or ‘the last tune I learned is …’)

Name Toss Game 
This game works when students know some or all of the names of the other students. 

Arrange the group in a circle. One person starts off by saying the name of someone else in the circle, and tossing the ball to them. That person then in turn says the name of a different person, and tosses the ball to them. Continue until everyone in the circle has received the ball once.

High-Five Name Game 
This game works when students know some or all of the names of the other students.

This is an alternative to the Name Toss game above.  It works if you have no ball to throw – or, if you want to avoid catching/throwing anxiety (which is a thing). A student stands in the centre (or the teacher can start this off by standing in the centre), says the name of someone in the circle, then crosses the circle, exchanges a high five with them, and takes their place. The student now in the centre then calls out the name of another student, high fives them, takes their place, and so on.

The Invisible Ball 

This is a Covid-friendly version of the Name Toss game. Students basically throw an invisible ball to each other; the student catches the invisible ball, says their name and passes it on.  The invisible ball also works really well online. It’s a great way to keep students engaged – and to encourage them to keep their cameras on!

5. Name badges

Invite students to make and wear name badges – or provide these yourself.

6. Associations

Associate your student’s name with something else to help you remember it – for example, something about their physical characteristics (left-handed Louise) or something that rhymes with it (busy Lizzy).

7. Say goodbye

Say goodbye to all of your students by name after each class (this is a really effective one!).  

Learning and remembering your students names – even for that one-off workshop or summer school – can make a big difference to how your students feel about your lessons. 

It’s definitely worth allowing for a bit of time and effort to get this right.

Why not put some of these ideas to the test the next time you are faced with a new class – or if you are already teaching a group where you haven’t yet learned their names.

And do let us know how you get on in the comments below.

Happy teaching!

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