Relationship Building

Using Everyone’s Favorite Word (Ep. 159)

We are all proud of our names, and as teachers, we know the importance of using our students’ names (and their correct pronunciations). In today’s episode, Nic talks about the power of names, the fun that comes with nicknames, and how being vulnerable when learning names can help build relationships. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Nic: Today, I’m going to give you the secret to connect with any person on this entire world. That sounds like a valuable lesson, doesn’t it? All right, then listen on. This is Everyday Art Room and I’m your host, Nic Hahn.

I was running some ideas past my husband the other day on what I might be talking about in the podcast for the upcoming weeks. And one idea, I ran across him, he immediately had a story to tell me. And it’s a powerful story and it’s what I started out with today. He was telling me a story about several years ago when he was a younger teacher and he was speaking to an older teacher and that’s all he could remember. He couldn’t remember who the person was that gave him this advice. But this teacher recommended that if he wanted to connect with his students the best, all he had to do was use their favorite word. Tim took it bait, line and sinker and said, “What? What’s the secret word? Tell me about that.” And the man looked at him and said, “It’s their name?” If you use a person’s name, you’re going to connect with them. They can hear their name, no matter what.

They can be in a crowd of 1,000 people. And if someone says their name, their ears perk up, it’s their favorite word, their name. I thought that was a great story to start this one off. See, recently we had a move into our neighborhood and this girl, she’s in seventh grade, we have found out and she runs by our house every day. And each of my kids have had the opportunity to talk to her. And I’ve seen them outside kind of chatting. And I don’t know if you’d call it playing in the high school, middle school age, but they’re chatting. And when they come in, I say, “Well, who was that? Who was your new friend?” And they both, separately have said, “Starts with a T mom, but I’m not really, it’s a big word. I don’t really know.”

All right, so I had the opportunity not too long after, very recently to be outside when she was outside. And so I call her over and I said, “Hey, welcome to the neighborhood. How’s it going?” And she’s a super friendly kid. And so we were chatting. I said, “Hey, my name is Nicole. What’s yours?” And she looked at me kind of with these, I don’t know, these eyes of, yeah, I’ll tell you my name, but you’re never going to get it. She says, my name is Tarakesh.” I said, “Okay, nice to meet you.” And then I asked her friend’s names and we were all chatting. And then halfway through the conversation, I used her name again. She absolutely stopped in her words, looked at me and said, “You just said my name.” I said, “Yeah. Yep, I did.” And she said, “No, nobody gets my name around here. You just said my name.” I said, “Well, it’s a beautiful name.” I don’t know. She said, “what did you say that you do?” I said, “I’m a teacher.” And she said, “That’s why. Teachers work hard to get my name.”

I paused because I thought, well, why? Of course. But in my I experience earlier, neither one of my kids took the time or had the capabilities or the memory capacity or whatever it was to know this person’s name. That’s where I started starting to formulate this podcast because I have since said hi to Tarakesh with her name several times and every time her face beams. And she has a connection with me already. We’ve only met a handful of times. This brings me back to a story from a long time ago, when I was new to teaching, I was trying to learn a student’s name, her last name. And it was a big family in my school and the last name was spelled Ngo. So I asked her, “Hey, how do you say your name? How do you say your last name?” And she goes, “Oh, it’s like this. You say no.” And then I’d say, “Oh, okay. Okay. No,” She’d look at me and say, “No.” Okay. “Is it No?” She’d look at me. “No.” Okay. Okay. Okay. “You say it one more time.”

“No.” Okay. You’re saying no, she’d smile. “No.” We went back and forth like five times trying to figure out how she could get me to say her name. This is a Chinese or a Vietnamese name, I recently have learned. It is actually one of the ten most popular names in China. I typed it in to get ready for this podcast. I’m still not saying it right. I guarantee you, but I type it in. How do you pronounce Ngo? There is a person who has the last name Ngo, and he gives such a great explanation. And I’m going to put it in with the links for sure. Because it was really interesting. Ngo, he explains is like the two words, Ron and wrong. Ron and wrong. Okay. So now say the word, Ron.

Feel what your tongue does, Ron. It kind of touches the front of your teeth. When you think about the word wrong, say it. I know we’re all saying it together. Just do it, just wrong. See what your tongue does, how it doesn’t touch the front of your teeth. So he explains that no, when you say no, well, me as a Minnesotan, no, my tongue is touching the front. So take that tongue back and say, no. I think that’s closer to right. He also goes on to say that if you’re Chinese, you say it one way. If you’re Vietnamese, if you speak Vietnamese, you say it another way. And then he ends his little tutorial with so good luck with that. I appreciate the grace and I will say that my student really did appreciate me trying so hard to understand how to say her name. And she appreciated that I was asking her. Even if I butcher it every single time, she’s going to have this story of the art teacher who would try really hard to say her name, but would butcher it. She’d always say it Ngo Instead of the correct way.

I think that’s okay. I think that’s okay to be vulnerable and tell your students, hey, I care about you. I want to keep trying it. My mouth might not work correctly, but I want to try it with you. I think that’s important. There has been many educators in my past that I have been in awe with. I think of Rob Layman. He is a close family friend now, but he works with Tim and has for many, many years, my husband, in the tech ed department. And he is so good at relationships, it is uncanny. Like just he is amazing. Tim and myself, I’d say we are really, really good at organizing material and giving some pretty great content to our students. We can share that content with other educators and make great formulas for educators to understand. And for students therefore to understand. Rob, that’s not necessarily his gift, although he is getting much better at that over the years. He has learned from Tim and Tim and myself have learned from him. He is excellent at relationships.

One of the key ways that he creates relationships is with names. He knows every student’s name. Rob is around our age, so in his forties, I believe, or very close to it. And guess what? He’s losing that, just a little bit. When we were talking, Tim and I were talking, he said, “Yeah, it’s getting a little harder for him to remember all the names.” And man did that make me feel better? Because I know at one point of my career, I could remember all 800 students’ names first and last with ease, not even having to go through my Rolodex in my head. But every single year as a specialist, you add in another 100 kids. Those 100 kids that have just left you to go to the middle school, they still are in your brain. So add in another and then another, and then another either. And I think this brain is getting filled up. It’s not dropping the ones out that I need to drop out.

Sometimes I’m able to be in public and look at a kid that’s graduated and say, oh my gosh, is that you Johnny or whatever? But it’s getting harder for me, it’s getting harder for me to remember the kids in my class, as well as the kids that I see in amongst the public. I work with a music teacher. So she’s working with mass amount of people. Her name is Val Critch, and she knows everyone’s first and last name within in a week. It’s a gift. I hope so very much that she will continue to have this gift. That is just one of those things that she can do really, really well. It’s something I admire, it’s a teammate of mine and anytime that I need to like quickly come up with a name, she’s the person to go to. She comes up with it for me.

Now, nicknames or something else. I’m going to tell you a story about, well, first, let me tell you about my nicknames. I have received any names from several different people. Nic was actually a name that I gave myself when I came online. That was back in 2010 and it was suggested that, you know what? You don’t really want your real name out there. You want to come up with a false name, an avatar. You don’t want your face on the internet. And so per that recommendation, I cleverly changed my name from Nicole to Nic. No one will ever figure out who I am. Nic Hahn became my online presence. But way before that, I have had several other nicknames. There was a commercial, a long time ago for cough drops, who, the person would say Ricola, up on a hill top. Do you know it? Okay, if you’re old, you do? But that was screamed down the hallways of the high school on a regular basis. But it was changed just a little bit. Nicola. That was me.

I also had a nickname since birth. My dad would always call me Cokie. That’s just his nickname for me, and my grandpa still to this day calls me Cole. And it’s a very short, it has to be in his voice and his way of speaking. It’s very … Cole, Cole. Very short. And only he gives that to me. Only my dad says Cokie to me, and it’s very, very special because it comes from that person. There are some teachers that do this on a regular basis. They have this relationship with students that they create. Sawyer’s, my son Sawyer’s, fifth grade teacher gave a nickname to every student. And he, Sawyer, told me a story, not too long ago about actually a friend of his who had passed. And he goes, and I always remember, Mr. E would call him Mountain. And I said, “Well, what’s that from?”

Well, sometimes Mr. E would make us do pushups or he’d make us do planks in the middle of class, like just for a motion and movement thing. And this particular student would always kind of have this, his butt up in the air. And so therefore he was jokingly called Mountain. Now, the reason that this was an okay thing was because of the space that he created around the name. Any teacher who wants to start using nicknames needs to make sure that they have a decent relationship with the class, with the student and have created a safe space. A safe enough space, that if you started using someone’s nickname on a regular basis, and they don’t like that nickname, you want to assure that that student has the safety with you to actually say, you know what? I’d rather you not call me that. I think that’s the thing.

There’s a first-grade teacher in my school. Her name is Katie Solberg, and she has a really good solution to this. So every once in a while, well, in her classroom, there is a classroom system that she has created where the kids get a little fuzzy if they’re doing something good. And they can put the fuzzies in a bucket to earn points, or I’m not really clear on the details of the whole point system. As specialists, we work with so many different teachers and we have the advantage of learning many, many different styles of celebration of classroom management. This is Katie’s. Some little fuzzy thing. It works for her, but when they earn so many, I believe it’s fuzzies, they get to have a celebration. And in many celebrations within schools, we have come to buying, having a pizza party or buying a sticker or a toy for every kid, or something to that effect. But Katie has come up with more simplistic and absolutely 100% free and engaging rewards.

One revolves around nicknames. If the students earn their goal, they get to choose a nickname for a day. So she goes to every student. She gives them, the night before she says, think of a nickname for you tomorrow. You have earned this. So as they come into class, she says, “What’s your nickname?” And one kid will say, “Fuzzy Fresh. That’s my nickname.” All right, writes it on a name tag, puts it on that little first grade’s body. And for the rest of the day, Fuzzy Fresh is your name. What’s your name? Turtle. Call me Turtle. You got it. Turtle. Plop it on his face. How about yours? Not face, probably chest. What about yours? What’s your name? Mine’s going to be Root beer. All right, here you go. Here’s your name tag. And for the rest of the day, she calls them by their nickname. Oh my gosh. It is so funny. Root beer, please come up, stand behind Fuzzy Fresh, and Turtle, could you stand behind them? Oh my gosh. The kids think it’s hilarious. And it really is.

So what they’re doing in this action is there today, they get to be a funny name. The teacher has to say those funny names. And the next day we go back to reality where I’m using your personal name. Guys, I’m going to be honest with you. After all is said and done, I write this because I had a success with my neighbor kid, and I saw that spark in her eyes of how happy she was when I was using her name. But let me tell you, I work with 750 students in a year. I try so hard to get to know each of their names, but it’s difficult. It’s really hard. And especially when you have names like Cara. Are you Cara or Cara? You’re Cara and then your Cara. How am I going to remember that? My goodness, there is so much to remember in your regular life. To remember every single kid’s name on top of that. Well, here’s an advantage that we do have, we have them year after year after year. And so that’s really important.

The media specialist, Megan Haripatch, she has a really good idea that I think she got from Pam Liron, one of our other coworkers once upon a time. And what she has them do is write a name tag down right away and they decorate it. And then she puts it on a piece of paper and that becomes their seating chart. She can laminate it or put it into a plastic sleeve and then place it on the table every time that the students come in. If she needs to remove one of those, she can move them around a little bit. But for the most part, she puts it on the table for two reasons. It helps the students know where they sit and it helps her know the student’s names a little bit better.

Another adaptation that we have done as a specialist team, as we take … Well, we use something called Infinite Campus. It is our grading system and you can print out seating charts. Now it’s really hard, when I go to print out a seating chart for all my students, it actually tries to print out all 750 and I probably just don’t know the proper way to do this. But I haven’t figured it out yet. So what we do is we ask the homeroom teachers to print out a seating chart in their classroom in alphabetical order. And it has the pictures of each of the individual students, at least every picture that is available in our system. And that helps each of us specialists, and then it also gives a good roster for substitutes that are coming in. They have the name and the face that goes along with it. Give yourself grace, but try your very best to use students’ names when they’re in your classroom. It is really a powerful thing.

I’m going to go ahead and leave the link to the word Ngo. Still saying it wrong. I know it. No. I think that’s closer. I’m going to leave that in with the podcast notes so that you can take a look at how powerful YouTube can be for this task here, finding out the correct pronunciation of names. Why shouldn’t we learn from the people who know the best, how to pronounce their own name? So this individual is sharing how to pronounce his name, giving you a little bit of history of how to say it. And there are some great linguistic teachers out there that can give you those tools. So use that as a resource, allow yourself to try to work with your students, to find a good balance between giving yourself grace of not knowing everybody for sure. And also trying your hardest to connect with your students by, of course, using their favorite word, which is their name.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.