Raisa Shaikh portrait

Written by Raisa Shaikh

English Teacher, Head of Key Stage Five English, Diversity and Inclusion Co-Chair

Despite it being an absolute classic (tune…banger…whatever else my students call it), this isn’t a piece about the Destiny’s Child song. 

It’s about how your name is the gateway to your identity. Think about it. 

Your name is the first thing you reveal to complete strangers in any scenario. Not only that, but it brings with it many layers including your heritage, family history, language and meaning. 

To learn a person’s name is to acknowledge and engage with who they are at the most basic level, with the hope of forging a strong, meaningful relationship as time goes on. I believe the exact same ethos applies within education whether it be fellow staff or students.

However, pre-Covid I was reminded that this is not always the case. 

This reminder came in the form of being put on last-minute cover (the joys) for a Year Nine English class. Once the students had settled in the classroom and were reading in silence, I began taking the register and read the name “Adua” out loud. The serene silence was broken by a flurry of hushed whispering amongst the students and after asking what the matter was, a boy raised his hand and said to me:

“It’s nothing bad Ma’am, just that it’s the first time someone’s gotten Adua’s name right”. 

He was seated next to Adua, who smiled at me in a way that read “Thank you, but can we also all stop looking at me right now”. I didn’t linger on it for much longer and mentioned to her that I’m glad I’d gotten it right, but it did make me think: 

  1. They’re in Year Nine, is this really the first time someone’s said her name correctly?
  2. Do others ask her before-hand how to pronounce her name? 
  3. Would she or any other student feel confident correcting a mispronunciation? 
  4. What’s the right way to even tell someone that they’ve mispronounced your name? 

A similar thing occurred when I found out that I’d been saying the names of one of my Year Eleven students incorrectly for a while without even realising. When I apologised to them, they said with a very dejected tone that it ‘didn’t matter’ and that I could ‘call them whatever’ I wanted because ‘nobody gets it right anyways so it’s just easier’.

Strangely, my attempt to comfort them came out as a loud “NO!”, followed by a rapid explanation in response to their raised eyebrows that names are important and that teachers need to get the basics right with their students. Upon further reflection, I also began thinking about growing up with my own name as a student and throughout my teaching career so far. From having a co-worker tell me that “Ray” would be much easier for them to say, to a university professor combining my name with a classmate’s name and addressing us both with that ‘new’ name multiple times, I realised that the gateway to my identity had not always been acknowledged. 

So why didn’t I say anything? 

In the past when I tried to correct people’s mispronunciations or misspellings, I would be met with a barrage of laughter followed with the all-too-familiar “It’s just a joke”, “Take a bit of banter”, “Stop being prissy” or was just ignored altogether. It became incredibly hard to say something only to be met with dismissal or the feeling that you were being the difficult, awkward one by drawing attention to yourself instead of just “getting on with it”.

This is not to say that those who repeatedly mispronounced or misspelled my name were automatically racist. Rather they displayed a sense of laziness, ignorance and a profound unwillingness to accept that their actions made another person feel devalued and invisible simply because it was not their “intention”. However, with the discussions and actions that are taking place amid the global outcry against injustice last year it is clear that a person’s intention does not automatically equal exoneration. There is no excuse anymore. 

Sometimes as teachers we forget how much power we actually have in the classroom and that our words and actions carry permanence. When it comes to pronouncing and spelling names of our students there is nothing wrong with taking the time to ask. Instead, it provides students with the agency to establish communication and assert their individuality from the outset.  

The exact same can be said of the workplace. Staff members deserve agency just as our students do and we can all afford to take that extra two minutes to make sure we get it right. Nobody should have their name morphed into something else by someone else and then be made to feel as though they have to capitulate to that person’s ignorance (regardless of intent), in order to avoid being labelled “difficult”. 

Your name is the gateway to your identity. 

Own it. 

Say it.