Call them by their name – or whatever

Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.

I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students;  Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.

Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.

In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively. 

For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.

In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.

Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.

So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?

8 thoughts on “Call them by their name – or whatever

  1. Your students—whatever they choose to be called—are so lucky to have the respect you so clearly show them. I agree wholeheartedly—my first day of teaching my colleague had a student introduce herself as Cinderella. It didn’t last long, but it obviously mattered in that moment to that little girl.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This whole name reporti g nonsense is exactly what you name (pun intended) it: veiled homophobia. I’m sure I would not call parents about students asking I call them something other than their given name. I’d ignore that rule and apologize later—w/ my fingers crossed behind my back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Being retired, I had no clue this was becoming a major issue. I’m guilty, too, of calling a few elementary kids a different version of their name than what their parents call them. I love that you checked with the student to see what their parents called them so you could use that name during conferences. I think students just need a little bit of individual identity to boost self esteem.


  4. I love everything about this post! It’s as if adults forget that we, too are asked what we would like to be called–there’s even a place on medical forms I’ve filled out. I’ve been “Chris” for so long that it almost sounds weird when someone calls me “Christine”. Thank you for pointing out this non-issue.


  5. I wholeheartedly agree. People have been using preferred names for a long time. I had a colleague named Carole and if we wrote Carol on something she refused to acknowledge that we meant her (there were only 10 people on staff…she knew who we meant!)

    I was in trouble with a parent a few years ago because her son was “Dave” instead of David in our class. I tried to explain that he had expressed this preference and she told me that Dave was too grown up and she didn’t like it.

    I think you’re right…there’s a link to homophobia here that people don’t like.

    Liked by 1 person

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