Modeling My Values

About three years ago, I discarded the mind-numbing, unproductive practice of taking roll. And on the first class of every quarter, I do something exciting instead. As students enter the room or work on a task that I’ve assigned, I MEET them. I look them in the eye and smile and shake their hand and tell them that my name is Jennifer. If they don’t tell me their name, I ask them for it. I welcome them and I make a note on my roll sheet that I met them. I hear their name, I see how it’s spelled, and I write down a phonetic spelling or a preferred name if they share one. It takes a long time and it is worth every minute. I always give them a task to complete so they’re not bored. I pause at times and try to recall the names and faces of several students who I’ve met so far. I start the process of learning their names. And because it is challenging, it is fun and exciting. And I share that with them. And I let them witness my struggle, my effort, my failures. And I use it as a metaphor for the learning that they will engage in all quarter long and beyond.

Except for a few of you, I did not know your names before I met you today. But look, I think that I can remember a few that I’ve learned this morning. [And I smile at a few people and confirm their names.] I will continue to work hard to learn your names, and within a week or two I will know them all. And you will have to put your mind to learning many things this quarter. But because you focus on it and make a point to learn it, you will, just as I will learn your names because I make a point to.

Over the next several days I take several opportunities to practice their names, usually by collecting and returning papers, and almost never by calling out 35 names in quick succession. They appreciate my efforts and I let them know that I appreciate their efforts too. They see that I forgive myself when I make mistakes and that I keep trying. After a few days, I know everyone’s names and I show off by going through the room and calling out each person’s name and they are delighted. I tell them that learning is tenuous; although I know all of their names right at that moment, I will surely forget some over the weekend. I tell them that they have surely forgotten some of the math they will need for this class. That’s natural…there’s nothing to be done about it except learn it again when they need it. I promise to point out along the way things that they’ll need to recall or relearn.

And on Friday of Week 1, I leave class, content that I am communicating that I very much value sustained effort, forgiveness, and resilience in the face of set-backs.

It makes me very happy.


5 thoughts on “Modeling My Values

  1. I’m pretty good at learning the names of the students, but I have never tried your technique. I like it. I have activities I could give my students while I go around the room to learn their names. How do you handle students trying to get into the class who are either on the wait list or not? One disappointing aspect to learning the names is that I usually forget all the names by the next quarter. My brain seems to have enough room for 3 sets of 30 students but no more. When a student from the previous quarter approaches me, I draw a blank. The student asks, “Don’t you remember me?” Of course I remember the student, but the name has disappeared.


    1. I meet everyone. If they’re not on my list, I add them to the waitlist. I like the energy of a full class, so I try to give everyone an add code on Day 1. Then I don’t mess with any more adds after that. It’s nice to have things settled right away. My brain, like yours, seems to purge all name associations at the end of the quarter. I, too, find that disappointing. But if I have the pleasure of seeing a student again, I either revisit my old class lists or I just tell them that my brain is packed with new names and ask them to remind me of theirs.


  2. Greet students at the door. Learn their names. If this weren’t a three-thousand-year-old idea, I’d call you a genius… Who doesn’t like to be noticed and treated with respect? Research shows that a feeling of connection (to school, curriculum, course, instructor, and/or peers) is a good predictor of student retention and success. What if all instructors in higher ed did it?


  3. What a lovely way to welcome your students. I always learned their names, and got to know them as people, and found that we all had a more rewarding experience. But, I never tried your technique! great idea!


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