“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?


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