Learning students’ names: how do *you* do it?

Getting to know students’ names is something every teacher has to do. It goes with the territory. Working in a language school, you teach multiple groups of students at various levels, of various ages, which adds up to a lot of names. My latest timetable currently has 7 different classes with another 1 due to start in a few weeks. Fortunately, 2 of the classes are YL classes, kept on from last term, and one of the classes is an on-going IELTS class. The other 4 are new adult groups each with around 11 or 12 students in, and the one due to start soon is another IELTS class. Like I said, that’s a lot of names!

This blog post has come about because after my first class with one of my new groups of learners on Wednesday 4th February, I came back down to the staffroom and one of my colleagues was wondering if I had inherited his students. So I proceeded to reel off all their names for him to check against. The response was ‘Bloody hell! How do you know all their names already?!’ The simple answer is, I need to. In order for me to be able to teach a group, they need to be individuals, as soon as possible, so that I can work with them and not experience group-fear (fear of being in front of a big group of people I don’t know!) :-p

Of course, remembering these names and people just after the end of the lesson you have just spent with them is one thing. The difficulty comes when two days later, having met umpteen other new students and taught umpteen other classes, you pick up your register to meet your new class for the second time. Who are they again, these names? I had that moment today, but luckily because of what I did in the first lesson, before I walked in I was quickly able to remind myself who they all are.

Here’s how:

  • In the first lesson, you always do some kind of getting to know you activity, right? Obviously. For example, at the most simple level, find out three new, interesting things about your partner. (Always concept check ‘interesting’ here… 😉 )
  • What I find works best is if after the activity you do some kind of plenary, where the students report things about each other to the group as a whole.
  • While they speak together and while they report, I scribble bits of information down.

Here is an example page from the above-mentioned class:

names5

(You may well wonder why the book says September when we are in January. This book was a freebee from the school, which my desk ate between October and January, and recently regurgitated! 😉 ) It’s no work of art, very basic scribbles. Of course, names and ages blanked out for obvious reasons. (And I’m not entirely sure why I wrote ‘Sicilian’ down, not really a distinguishing feature here! I think though that it had been to do with cooking but I didn’t have time to finish writing!) So, some of the information relates to physical features, some is from the initial ‘3 interesting things‘ activity or equivalent, some is from the subsequent FSW activity, and some is meta-information gleaned from the activities e.g. the eye symbol, to remind me that the student in question looks like one to keep an eye on. The important thing is, moments before the second lesson with this class, I opened my notebook, looked at these notes, these bits and bobs of information I had scribbled down, and it was enough to trigger memories of who they all were, meaning I could walk into the classroom and confidently use their names straight away, which of course they appreciate and which helps with rapport.

This time round, I did the usual ‘Find someone who…‘ type-activity but I did it with a ‘learner autonomy twist’, which, as well as acting as an icebreaker and getting everybody talking to everybody else, immediately gave me an insight into/snapshot of where they are all at with regards their independent learning habits. It also encourages the students to think about what they do already, vocalise it to their classmates, and compare it with what their classmates do. Hopefully this is sowing the seeds and setting the scene for further work on helping them – and helping them to help each other – become more autonomous in their learning.

For homework at the end of the first lesson, I set them the task of writing a letter to me, with the goal of telling me about them. I told them the objective of the homework was for me to get to know them better and to see what their writing is like. Two days later, 11 pieces of writing duly plopped into my lap from my eager beavers! So, killing two birds with one stone, I’m getting extra needs analysis data both from the point of view of getting to know them better (including about their learning habits, as I encouraged them to use the ‘Find Someone Who‘ activity statements for inspiration as to what to write about) and seeing where they are at with their written production.

Obviously my initial observations in terms of speaking and listening ability or level of autonomy may not necessarily be accurate, and they are not set in stone judgements, they are just first impressions which will keep evolving every lesson, as I learn more about the students and as the students evolve. ‘Eyes’ may be added or removed and so on. Simply, this is a starting point. The main thing is, as a whole, the notes fixed the students’ faces and names in my memory from the get-go, which makes life much easier for me.

This works for me. But I’m sure other people have much more efficient ways of going about it! How do you get to know your students names? 🙂