My number one top teaching tip ever

Before I reveal my number one top teaching tip ever, I’m going to keep you in suspense for just a moment to tell you what my Politics of Nature class are doing this week. Don’t worry, it isn’t really a digression.

They are going out to find out the name of at least one plant.

Alarmingly, last year, quite a few of the students – who had opted to take a class on the Politics of Nature, don’t forget – had a lot of difficulty in naming any plants or other wildlife. When I asked them to ‘meet me by that silver birch over there’, a look of terror came into their eyes! One student asked me if buddleia and lavender were the same plant.

I’m not laughing at them and it’s not their fault – they were never taught how to differentiate between plants, so the world has ended up looking to them like a ‘green blur’.

We learned together that learning the names of plants is a political act: the world comes into focus in new ways. We start to become aware of the beauty, the detail, the nuance, the complexity of the world around us. We respect it and love it more, take care of it better. One student even made a wonderful podcast about the experience.

So, perhaps it is already obvious what my teaching tip is. But if not….

…[drumroll]…

It is this: Learn your students’ names.

Depending on the context you work in, you may find this piece of advice obvious or even strange. When I was studying Czech for my undergrad, there were only three of us in the year, so it would have been most peculiar if my tutor, the language teacher, the librarian and all the other students hadn’t known my name. If you are in this fortunate position, you can carry on thinking about the plants.

On the other hand, perhaps you are thinking that you can’t learn your students’ names. Your memory is too poor, you can’t pronounce half of their names, you are not too good with faces, you will get two students mixed up and embarrass everyone, you are too busy, too stressed and too tired, your class is too big. I completely understand this because I fall into all of these categories too.

Nevertheless. I promise you. If you want to be a great teacher: learn their names.

There are tricks you can employ. Your University system probably has photos of all the students in your class with their names in the record system. You can make it into a game and quiz yourself publicly at the start of class every week. You can send round a questionnaire asking them to provide a pronunciation guide. You can humbly ask them to keep correcting you and assure them that it will be worth it once you get it right and you really get to know them all. I have never had anything other than a warm response to the effort, even though I do often muddle two students up in the first couple of weeks of term. (I sometimes get someone’s name wrong even after teaching them for weeks – but then, my mum sometimes calls me by my sister’s name, so I think most people recognise that this is just being human.) You can even make a prize available for any student who can get all their classmates’ names right on a quiz by the middle of term, thus roping everyone into the game.

The biggest class that I have learned all the names of had 80 students in it. If you never teach a group smaller than 80, then you are really broadcasting rather than teaching, and perhaps different rules will have to apply. But when I have taught larger groups (up to 500 some years), at least in my department, we did some teaching to the whole cohort in lectures, but we also had small group teaching in classes of 20, and Teaching Assistants worked alongside us. In that case, I would learn the names of my small classes and I would ask the Teaching Assistants to learn the names of theirs. So, as a student, someone on the teaching staff knew your name. Yes, I know that your TAs are busy and stressed and not paid enough. Still, they are the teachers of the future, so why would you deprive them of the top teaching tip ever? I still get emails from erstwhile TAs thanking me for making them do it and assuring me that they still learn all the names now. It really is that good a tip.

Once you know someone’s name, you can differentiate them from the others. You will, almost without realising it, learn a bit about them. You will be able to ask them really relevant questions and tailor your teaching to what matters to them. You will inspire their respect and loyalty because they are in relationship with you. You will, at least if you are anything like me and my former TAs, be happier, because you are developing an understanding of the people who surround you – in all their wonder and individuality and diversity – and you are seeing what your work as a teacher is doing for them as individuals over time. If someone starts behaving discourteously, or in a way that interferes with their learning, or someone else’s – as Jennifer described last week – asking them by name to stop and having a conversation with them as someone they know and trust is much more likely to help. And also makes them less likely to do it in the first place, I tend to find. Once students realise you know them, they will seek your good opinion, knowing that you will remember it was them and not someone else.

It breaks my heart a bit how many students tell me that I’m the only teacher at Uni who has ever learned their name. At UCL, we take attendance. I once sent the register round and got it back to discover that someone had been signed in despite self-evidently not being there in the room. This brought home to me that students take it for granted that their tutor doesn’t know their name or whether they are in the class or not. This is incredibly sad. You can imagine how I hammed up my response(!): explaining how shocked and offended I was that students would blatantly falsify the register for their friend in front of my nose, how hurtful it was that they would do something like that even when they knew how hard I worked to learn their names and knew fine well who was there and who wasn’t. The absent student was in my office before the end of the day to say sorry. We were all fast friends again very quickly once apologies had been proffered, but it stuck with me as a worrying example of how cynical and thin the average classroom relationship has become.

In a world of metrics, big student numbers, loneliness and isolation, knowing your students’ names is a political act. It shows them they matter. It shows everyone involved that teaching matters. It is by far the most important thing I will be doing in the first couple of weeks of term.

What are your top tips for remembering and pronouncing those names?