Elen Jones portrait

Written by Elen Jones

Director at Ambition Institute. Former teacher in South London and West Wales.

As we start a new term and meet new pupils, families, teachers and colleagues, let’s take a moment and a little extra care towards each other and get each other’s names right.

My name is Elen Mair Jones.  Aside from being quintessentially Welsh it’s pretty hard to get wrong.  Often the ‘Mair’ becomes ‘mare’ as in ‘bear’ through an English lens.  I can’t think of an English word that mirrors the pronunciation of the ‘air’ in ‘Mair’ so find a Welsh person nearby and they’ll give you a demo.  Sometimes Elen becomes Ellen, it annoys me from time to time.  However, when I moved to University and joined a welcome session with the college chaplain and I introduced myself:

“Hello, I’m Elen” with a big wide Welsh second ‘e’ as in the ‘ai’ sound in English ‘hair’.

I met the response: 

“It will probably be Elen here” with a low second ‘e’ as in the ‘u’ in English ‘gun’.  

It wasn’t a response that oozed welcome.  I was an eighteen-year-old from a quarrying village in North Wales amongst the first generation of her family to attend university.  I’d worked bloody hard to get there.  It was a bit of a kick in the teeth.  Clearly, I did not belong, and it seemed that I would have to compromise on some of the rough edges of my identity if I wanted that to change.

As we start a new term I was reminded of this incident.  I have been meeting new colleagues, my children are off to meet new teachers and teachers are meeting new pupils.  Learning each other’s names can take time, and we can all make mistakes.  

When I started my teaching career in South London I met children with names that I had never encountered.  My first response to this, one that I now regret, was to muddle through.  I would either mumble something incoherent when I first called out their names on the register or make a guess.  The guesses became more informed over time, but still, in the midst of new seating plans, timetables, resources and highlighters I didn’t take enough time to – carefully – learn my pupils’ names.        

The risk is that pupils, colleagues and families end up feeling like I felt in that welcome session as an eighteen-year-old.  Names are one of the artefacts of our identities: like hairstyles, pronouns and gestures.  Some of these artefacts will matter more to some of us than to others, and that’s fine.  In mispronouncing or misspelling someone’s name, often out of sheer haste and with no ill intention, we suggest that that aspect of their identity needs to be malleable for them to be a part of our class, our school, our organisation or community.  I have never had to ask people to correct the pronunciation or spelling of my name particularly often, for those who do it must feel like a constant battle to assert their full identity.  It is a position that people whose names have roots in languages other than English find themselves in more often than those whose names do not.    

So as we start a new term, let’s take a little extra care with each other.  Eventually, I would just ask the pupil how to pronounce their name if I didn’t know.  They would tell me.  I would apologise for my ignorance.  Rightly.  There are also ways in which we can take care of each other without placing a burden on those who have to fight this battle frequently.  We can ask a colleague about how we pronounce a pupil or family name.  We can take extra care with our spelling, even if we are in a rush, where we know a spelling is unfamiliar to us.  Recently, I misspelt a colleague’s name twice in close succession and felt really bad, especially the second time, and so I should.  Their name was similar to a very common English word and I was careless.  There are reasons why we may all misspell a name – our brains are wired to find a familiar pattern.  Allam can become Allen because our brain has sought the familiar and accidently missed the detail.  We have to make that bit of extra effort to not jump to the familiar, and to be conscious of where we may need to exert that bit of extra effort. 

So as we start a new school year, get to know new people, let’s do that with a little extra care, and get each other’s names right.