“Well, That’s a Funny Name!” And Other Culturally Insensitive Things to Avoid

With the beginning of the school year upon us, many of us have painstakingly spent time decorating our classrooms to be warm and inviting places and we're planning how to move students deftly through the curriculum. We are ready to welcome students back for another successful year. Throughout all of our preparations, it is important that our classrooms are culturally responsive and attempt to avoid actions that can come across as culturally insensitive.

Avoid Judgement

Without fail, we have all come across that one name on the roster that gives us pause. We stare at it, trying to break it down by syllable, sound it out phonetically, all to no avail. We stumble through it, hoping that the student, whose name we are butchering, will step in and save us. They do. Rattling off how to pronounce it correctly, saving us from further embarrassment.

Our first instinct may be to make a comment that points out the “otherness” of their name: it’s funny, it’s different, it’s interesting (in a way that shows we’re really saying something else), we’ve never heard it before. While seemingly innocent, making these comments points out the fact that the name is “different” or “funny” can potentially and unintentionally alienate students.

Don’t Force Assimilation

While you may continually trip and stumble over students’ names, please avoid asking students to call them by a nickname that makes things convenient for you. Names are significant, and many students whose names are “different” have meaning assigned to those names. Don’t minimize the importance of their name by shortening or nicknaming without the student prompting, to make things easy. Instead, engage students in a conversation about the significance of their names. Even if a student says it doesn’t matter what you call them, make clear to them that it does matter. It’s their name, and they are important to you and matter.

Check Biased Comments from Other Students

As ELA teachers, we try to make our classroom and curriculum representative of the diverse cultures students will encounter in the world. Our bookshelves are stocked with books to expose students to other cultures, and we attempt to build empathy for others and build students’ cultural awareness through our instruction. All of our good intentions can be undone if we don’t address culturally insensitive comments students make. When students make fun of others’ names or accents or mimic languages, it’s not enough to just make students stop. It’s important to address why these actions are offensive and provide an opportunity for students to learn more about a culture they need exposure to.

Experience Doesn’t Always Equal Expert

Remember that having experience with students who come from different cultures does not make you an expert on the culture. While you may have some level of understanding, it is important that you continue to check your assumptions about how students feel in your classroom simply because you think you understand their cultural background. We know each student is unique, so our practice needs to reflect the fact that we respect each student’s unique ties to their culture and not let our limited expertise overshadow their own.

Ensuring that our teaching is culturally responsive is not an easy task. There will be times when we make mistakes. However, if our students know that we are making a real effort to incorporate who they are into the fabric of our classroom, those mistakes can be powerful lessons that will carry into the future. What better teachers to have than the students who fill our classrooms every day?

How to Prioritize Your Time Before School Starts

As summer is winding down, thoughts turn to the upcoming school year and how teachers can be getting ready. There are back-to-school sales, back-to-school rallies, back-to-school ads everywhere, and I’m pretty sure I saw a cupcake decorated like a pencil somewhere. With all of the hype around this time of year, it is easy to get drawn into the excitement and anxiety that seems to be in the air. For teachers especially, this time of year is fraught with emotion, as all the unknowns of the new school year loom large in front of them. In my 17+ years in the classroom, I have learned that these last few weeks of summer can be one of the best times of the year, second only to the joy of actually meeting and getting to know my new group of students. This process has not been by accident, however. Over the years I have learned that there are things I can do to help get me ready to put my best foot forward. I would love to share what I do with you by showing you how to prioritize your time before school starts. 

I know I feel better when my classroom is set up and ready to go. The question is, does your classroom really have to be ready four weeks before school starts? Probably not. There are other, more fulfilling things you can be doing to help fill your bucket before the beginning of a new year. One way to prioritize is through reflections and questioning. I get out a journal to help me figure out what would be most effective for me in the last few weeks before school starts. Here are a few questions you may want to reflect upon before the year begins.

1. If I were to say I was stressed about something right now, what would it be and why? Is this something I have control over?
2. What kind of self-care is most meaningful to me? Is there any way to work that into the next few weeks so that I am able to be my best for my students?
3. What can I do to improve myself as a teacher? Can I take any small steps towards that goal in the next few weeks?
4. What books have I read recently, and did any of them strike a chord? If so - why? If not - what would I change to make the book more impactful?
5. Have I helped to put a smile on someone else’s face recently? Is there anything I can do to give back to my community?

I find that answering one or more of these simple prompts often helps me to be more reflective and thoughtful. From this point, I would look at my calendar, and actually, put events on there. For example, at 10am on Friday, August 16th, I will be going to the library to look for a new book to read. I purposefully plan this so that I have something new to dive in to over the weekend. I also have time blocked out to go work in my classroom. One of these things is no more important than the other, they carry equal weight. Getting my classroom ready is important, so is getting myself in the best mental and physical place possible.

We all know that a teacher’s greatest commodity is time. So why would we spend the precious little time we have each summer back in our schools and classrooms? I am a better teacher when I have prioritized some time for myself, and I bet others are as well. Take this time to be proactive about rejuvenation in whatever way works best. As for myself, between now and Labor Day, you will probably find me prioritizing my time lost in a good book.


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