As a student, I learned early on that my name was different. A kind of difference that was not bad, but too complicated for someone to engage with during formal introductions, let alone daily, transactional encounters. That lesson is one that I learned on my first ever day of school, and that seemed to play in a loop every first day of classes for the rest of my time as a student.
Now, when I receive my student roster at the beginning of the year, I meticulously read each of my students’ names in their entirety — beginning, middle, and last. Inevitably, a list of favorites emerges for me as the year unfolds, either because the name is unique or the student that brings the name to life is remarkable.
The Importance of Introductions
On the first day of school, my favorite and simultaneously most anxiety-inducing moment in class is still introductions. I ask my students to introduce themselves by sharing their first and last names, and to offer their preferred name, if it is different from the name listed in the roster. Then, I hold my breath. I listen with every ounce of attention and energy possible. Is the accent on the syllable I imagined? Did they use the long or short vowel? I make notes on my seating chart with the phonetic pronunciation for future reference. I add nicknames in parenthesis and star them if they are preferred. I adjust my rosters after that first class, and I try to use their names often the first week of school.
During moments in which my mind wanders away from a meeting or a student’s draft, I find myself thinking about how those names might be pronounced in multiple languages. I say them in my head in English and then in Spanish. My mental pronunciation adjusts to the accent, cadence, and physical changes required by each language. Santiago, for example, sounds shy and abbreviated in English. When I say it in Spanish, it sounds bright, cheery, and full! I love that its four syllables take time and space when they are brought to life.
Many educators might ask, “Why do you give this much thought to names? Why does it matter how it is pronounced in a language other than English?”
My answer to these questions is simple: for a student, it means being seen.
A name is one of the first belongings that we carry with us, and how we treat people’s names can help us create a sense of belonging in our school communities.
Living in Dallas, Texas, I was able to get away with a few years of proper pronunciation as a student in bilingual classes. However, as soon as I left a space in which the norm and expectation was an educational experience with multiple languages, my name became a source of anything from excitement to bewilderment and confusion.
At my independent school, my routine for coping with my teachers’ inability to say my name was to empathize with their struggle, reassure them that my name is difficult to pronounce, and validate their effort with a “Don’t worry about making a mistake. I appreciate you trying!” Then I would dismiss the whole experience along with part of my identity by offering that they just use my nickname, Monsie.
I could anticipate when I needed to step in and activate my little script by the extra-long moment of pause, puzzled look, and very slow pronunciation of the letter M. It became automatic. It became routine. I became desensitized.
Identity Development and Belonging
Today, as a DEI practitioner and educator, I am first trying to create an environment where members of my community feel as if their full, authentic selves belong. Like the story of their names, students and faculty, especially underrepresented groups, attempt to bring pieces of their identity with them when they come to our independent schools. Whether they can express and share those identifiers openly in their community can be traced back to an interaction with a peer, similar to what I described above.
For educators, this touch point should and must be seen as an opportunity to have an affirming role in each student’s sense of self as they grapple with their identity. To take advantage of those moments, it is important that educators prioritize building their listening and caretaking literacies. When a teacher takes an intentional pause to listen to their students and to understand the feelings that they carry around their identities, we can create positive and empowering connections with those students. This approach to supporting identity development is necessary because we know the link between belonging and a student’s ability to learn.
I can point to teachers, coaches, and mentors who created spaces that allowed me to bring in and explore all parts of my identity, even ones that I did not know were emerging. These educators showed me that authenticity should not be a privilege in an educational space because it is a requirement to learn and grow, for everyone!
It took years for me to be able to show up authentically and fully as Monserrat rather than Monsie, but as I slowly re-introduce myself, I feel a new profound sense of place and belonging even in spaces that have been part of my life for years.
My name carries with it my Mexican American heritage. It means strength, resilience, and legacy. When I say it aloud to the world, I celebrate and pay tribute to mi familia, my family. When I share the story of my name now, I do it to put myself in a positive head and heart space, and to share who I come from, who I am now, and who I want to become.