A few days ago I was tidying my bookshelf (in these Zoom days, a bookshelf reveals a lot to one’s colleagues) and I picked up an old battered copy of Dale Carnegie’s, ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’.
I spent a pleasurable hour skimming through it again and reminding myself of its lessons. Many are obvious but useful and some are as directly applicable to teaching as to life. Those of value, I thought I would share here in a series of shot blogs.
Lesson 1: ‘If you don’t do this, you are headed for trouble.’ (Or: The Power of a Name)
It is not an original insight to highlight that learning names matters. But it is, in my experience, a skill that is often overlooked.
First, let us dispel a myth: no one is ‘bad with names’. People who claim this are those who do not invest the appropriate energy into learning them. That’s fine; that is their prerogative – but let’s be clear: that it is a choice, not an innate disadvantage.
As Carnegie puts it:
Most people don’t remember names, for the simple reason they don’t take the time and energy necessary… They makes excuses for themselves; they are too busy.
Yet, Carnegie points, there are many other people (the specific examples he gives is FDR), who are wonderful at remembering names. We are surely, he points out, not busier than them.
Carnegie’s insights are reinforced by ideas around the importance of recall in aiding long-term retention. Chapter 3 of Daniel Willingham’s seminal work is instructive on this, but there is plenty of other research that tells us if we want to commit something to memory, we can achieve this through regular retrieval. And retrieval practice is something of which we are all capable.
But why are names so important?
There are many reasons, but at the heart of it I would argue it is this: when people use our names, we feel valued and important.
It is easy to see why this is vital in teaching. If we want to establish a classroom environment where our pupils feel like they belong, then we must use their names. Indeed, pupils are astute at spotting when we don’t know them by name. And this can have important implications: pupils who do not feel valued are more likely to feel demotivated; they are also more likely to act up.
In time, obviously, most teachers will know all the names of their pupils. But in some cases, the damage will already be done. The opportunity for creating that positive, collegiate atmosphere will have melted away like snow on a hot summer afternoon.
It is not only in dealing with young people that this matters. It is equally as important with adults. Good leaders will know the names of their new staff immediately. They have the advantage of CVs and other reference points and so on.
It is, of course, as true of young people as it is of adults.
During my teacher training I attended a seminar with the rest of my cohort (approx. 35 people) led by Kate and Tom (not their real names). Kate led the first part of the session. Among other things (she had a patronising and superior style), she failed to take any interest in us.
Tom, by contrast, was anxious to get to know us. During Kate’s part of the session, whenever we broke for paired or small-group discussion, Tom would circulate the entire room, asking for names and making small-talk with us. When Kate continued her lecture, Tom stood at the side, scanning the room, clearly testing himself.
When it came to Tom’s part of the session, he opened by going around the room and listing of everyone’s names perfectly. It was an impressive trick and it won us over (or certainly it won over me).
Needless to say, of our two instructors, it was Tom who we listened to more.
You see the same effect with good school leaders. The best heads I’ve worked for have always known all their staff by names. It is a basic necessary of making a member of staff feel part of the community. Our pupils surely deserve to be treated the same way.
This is not to say that this is easy. After Tom’s inspirational session, I vowed to do the same with my classes and learn all their classes within our first lesson together.
I failed, dramatically. Being a fresh-faced (and largely incompetent) new teacher I could barely get my class of 32 boys to complete their starter. It was pandemonium. Basic class control became suddenly more important and it took me until Christmas (at least) to achieve my original goal.
It is also harder to achieve at a new school. However experienced you might be, new routines, systems, lesson timings and so on, all crowd your working memory. (Incidentally, working memory and cognitive overload are why it is such a challenge to remember lots of new names at parties: there is often not the time to practise retrieval.)
But even if it is hard, I think quickly learning pupils’ names remains a worthy goal. For, as Carnegie puts it:
‘Remember: a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.’