By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW
A few years ago, I worked with a student who used a nickname, and I assumed that she liked this nickname. Then one day, while doing a group activity with students, the topic of “liking your own name” was raised. Some shared that they liked their name, while others gave examples of more desirable monikers—a typical “tween” conversation. Yet something more important came out of this discussion: The nicknamed student stated that she not only loathed her given name, but she found her nickname only slightly more tolerable. She also admitted this was the reason she neglected to write her name on her work. Sensing her discomfort with the topic, I moved the group on and decided to return to it with her privately at another time.
When I followed up with this student, I learned that she did not like her given name because none of her teachers ever said it right. She told me she hated hearing her name said incorrectly every day, and she added, “It made me really start to hate my name.” Finally, she opted for the nickname that she didn’t really like but that spared her from hearing her (beautiful) name butchered all day, every day. This was a powerful discovery for both of us.
Now it is true that this student’s name was unique, particularly for those outside of her culture since it required a certain accent. However, in that meeting, it became clear that this child felt that no one cared enough to try. So on that day, I learned how to say her name correctly. I asked her to break it down for me, and I said it to her over and over (and over) until I finally had it. Undeniably, I initially sounded awkward fumbling and failing. But it wasn’t impossible. And I could actually feel her discomfort shifting, rightfully, back onto me. In this way, I was able to understand this student’s sense of unease and communicate to her that she deserved better. She laughed at me and I laughed at myself, but I made it known that it was important to me to honor who she was. And I hope that she left that day believing that there is absolutely nothing wrong with her name or the culture that her name reflects.
Micro-Inequities and Micro-Affirmations
It is my opinion that this student had been experiencing a micro-inequity. MIT’s Mary Rowe defines micro-inequities in the publication “Micro-Affirmations & Micro-Inequities” as “apparently small events which are often ephemeral and hard to prove, events which are covert, often unintentional, frequently unrecognized by the perpetrator, which occur wherever people are perceived to be ‘different.’” While the mispronunciation of this student’s name was likely completely unintentional on the part of the educators in her life, it certainly had an impact on her.
When I sat down to write this blog post, I recalled this encounter, and I considered that I had provided a micro-affirmation to this young person. Micro-affirmations, according to Rowe, are “apparently small acts, which are often ephemeral and hard to see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed. Micro-affirmations are tiny acts of opening doors to opportunity, gestures of inclusion and caring, and graceful acts of listening.” While we may not always be able to avoid micro-inequities, we can learn to be more aware, and we can make a conscious effort to use micro-affirmations to help balance things out as much as possible.
It’s Okay to Make Mistakes
I truly hope that if you have difficulty pronouncing names, you are not hearing this as a rebuke or judgment. Names can be so hard! Believe me, I get it. And I am not immune to mistakes. There may be a name that stumps you no matter how many times you try, but the point is, we need to care enough to try. This is what micro-affirmations are all about—including and honoring the individual identities of each of your students. So let’s simply own our mistakes when we make them (another great practice to model for our students) and try our best moving forward. It’s what we want from our students. And that is all there is to learning anything, right?
Ways to Use Micro-Affirmations
- Find out what you can about a student’s name and how it is pronounced. Take the time to ask students to say their names and tell the class what they know about their names (the meaning of the name, why they have it). Make sure to ask students if they prefer to be called something else. You may stumble with pronunciation, but a genuine effort to get it right is an example of a micro-affirmation. If you are embarrassed and give up trying, you risk unintentionally implying that your own discomfort about making a mistake is more important than students’ discomfort about hearing their names pronounced incorrectly.
- Create classroom meetings/circle times where everyone’s names are used. Encourage the class to join in when a student is done sharing, to respond collectively to that student using their name. “Thanks for sharing, [name]!” Ask if anyone has a connection with this student. These practices are inclusive and help build relationships. Consider that students who don’t wish to share in this format can still benefit from hearing an acknowledgment of their presence: “We are happy you’re here today, [name]!”
- Try to refrain from making assumptions about students’ experiences. Has your childhood taught you that running downstairs on Christmas morning to a living room filled with gifts under the tree is “the” quintessential holiday experience? If so, don’t feel too bad—mainstream television and advertising campaigns reinforce this narrative as well. Consider taking a pause to recognize that this is not the norm for all families. Clearly not all families celebrate Christmas. Even among those that do, they might not have the tree and the gifts, and many students don’t have two floors in their living space. If we create writing prompts or initiate discussions with this “running downstairs” narrative as a presumption, we might, with this micro-inequity, cause unintentional harm for kids. We do not wish for our students to feel that they exist outside of “normal.”
- Honor diversity and leave things open-ended. While it’s important to be aware of diversity, you can go further by initiating conversation that encourages and validates diversity. By inviting students to share their experiences in whatever shape they take, we create a culture of inclusivity and remind students that “normal” can look many different ways. Consider prompts such as, “Tell me about what your birthday means in your life,” rather than something like, “What was the best birthday party you ever had?” Provide open-ended chances for all kids to share, with frequent reminders that we are all different and that this makes us special. Caring about creating individual connections paves the way for micro-affirmations to do their work. Trust that this can go a long way for your students.
How Kids Feel with Us Matters
Using micro-affirmations allows us to foster healthy, connected relationships with students so they feel how much they matter to us. And when students feel they matter, they tend to find more success in their academics.
Students sometimes complain that they don’t like their teachers. Often when I explore this further with a student, what I learn is that the student actually feels as though the teacher doesn’t like him or her. I don’t know of any educators who want students to think they do not like them. This is something we do have control over! Micro-affirmations can include many of the things discussed in this post but also simple things such as having something unique you share with each student (a personal joke, handshake, or silly but respectful nickname).
After all, as Carl W. Buehner said: “They may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.
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