Gayduobah Goyah left Liberia with a name holding the weight of his country, his culture and his family, but time and time again, he heard his Texas college peers butcher it. With each slip of the tongue, they cut at his name until one day Goyah chopped off his first name for his shorter middle name, Sizi.
Now, the math teacher starts each year at Brooklyn Secondary Arts and IB World School by learning how to pronounce his students’ names and sharing the stories, history and culture behind them.
“On the first day of school, I write out my entire name and I pronounce it out, what it means and how I am proud of it,” he said. “ I ask the kids to say their name, how they say it at home and some of them add an accent to it.”
Getting a student’s name right is emerging as a key lesson for metro area school districts as their enrollments become more and more culturally diverse. Some districts are hiring consultants and hosting teacher trainings. Some are signing onto national campaigns such as My Name, My Identity.
“We are trying to be more culturally responsive in general in our building and knowing that if we are honoring students by pronouncing their names right, that’s a good first step to developing that relationship,” said Molly Roeske, principal of South Washington County’s Lake Middle School in Woodbury.
Roeske recently held a staff meeting where she shared resources like Name Shout, a web application that helps with name pronunciation.
At Lake Middle School, 31 different languages are spoken, and students of color make up 25 percent of the school. Teachers are encouraged to learn about the different cultures, the importance of students’ names and to steer away from assigning nicknames.
As a sign of the rising importance of cultural awareness, the South Washington County district is adding climate and culture to its 2016 strategic plan.
The Columbia Heights Public School officials also stressed the importance of name pronunciation during staff meetings at the start of the school year.
Mispronouncing names can put students on a path that leads them to disconnect from their cultural identity and prompts them to change their own names, education researchers say.
It has even been deemed a “microaggression,” a subtle form of racism.
A 2012 study from the University of California Riverside titled, “Teacher, please learn our names!: racial microaggressions and the K-12 classroom,” found that cultural slights like mispronouncing names devalue self-worth and affect cultural identity.
Students begin to feel “othered,” said, Rita Kohli, assistant professor at the University of California Riverside graduate school of education.”
“One thing we really found: This is far more damaging because it becomes internalized,” Kohli said. “They start to feel that their name, their culture and what they bring from home doesn’t have a place in the classroom context.”
Some argue that talking about microaggressions in schools encourages students to play the victim.
“You are encouraging them to think of themselves as victims, as people who are being wronged, and therefore, people who should be angry,” said Katherine Kersten, senior policy fellow at the Center of the American Experiment.
The national movement, My Name, My Identity, founded by the Santa Clara County Office of Education in partnership with the National Association for Bilingual Education, has collected pledges from more than 600 districts agreeing to respect student names and honor their cultural identities.
“We want to be sure that our students feel included and respected in schools,” said Yee Wan, director of Multilingual Education Services for the Santa Clara County Office of Education.
Wan recommends a desk name-tag exercise to help teachers pronounce their students names: Give students the chance to design and decorate name tags and write out the phonetic spelling of their names. Students then present their name tags and share the story related to their names.
Training sessions spread
Since 2012, consultant Sharroky Hollie has visited more than 15 Minnesota districts as the executive director of the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, a California nonprofit. This school year, he is taking his trainings to South Washington County, Shakopee and Lakeville public schools.
As part of teacher training, Hollie touches on the importance of name pronunciation. “When we ignore cultural differences, students feel marginalized,” he said.
“The biggest negative impact leads to issues of achievement, ultimately.”
In September, Northwestern University released a study that found that race-based stress can lead to gaps in achievement, when students experience discrimination or fear of falling into a stereotype.
Hollie said Hopkins has employed cultural training throughout the district. He and his staff personally trained more than 150 staff members.
Following Hollie’s efforts, the district hired its own cultural coach, who works in partnership with Edina Public Schools.
In the south metro, Sioux Trail Elementary School in Burnsville introduced cultural proficiency training to its staff last year, and now the entire Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district has followed its lead.
In training sessions, teachers look within to examine their own biases and beliefs as a way of shaping their interactions with students.
“It lets kids honor their own cultures, who they are in their classroom, versus what we believe they should conform to,” Shannon McParland, principal of Sioux Trail.
Some educational leaders say all that is a good start, but more needs to be done, including hiring more teachers from different backgrounds.
Culture is on display in Goyah’s Algebra 2 classroom. The Liberian flag hangs beside him as he writes down math equations with a dry erase marker in one hand and his Liberian chief stick in the other. Dressed in his traditional African wear Goyah often switches from English to Liberian in the midst of the lesson to break down a problem for his students.
Having a teacher who acknowledges her Liberian culture makes a difference for Sam Dougan, a 15-year-old sophomore, in Goyah’s class.
“I’m proud to be Liberian and having a Liberian teacher who can relate to me is especially great,” she said.