The names we (don’t) remember


I’ll bet that I’m not the only teacher on the planet to forget students’ names years after I taught them. I wish I could remember everyone’s name, like Bill Clinton does, but no matter how much effort I put into it, it’s gone pretty quick. It could be because, well, I’ve taught a lot of kids. In my eight-ish years of doing this teaching thing, I’ve probably taught close to a thousand students, which sounds like a lot until I think about folks who have taught for waaaaaaaaaaay longer than I have. The students whose names have completely escape me have been some of the best and brightest students I’ve ever had the pleasure to teach, but five years later it’s “Hey…you” when I happen to run into them on the street (I’m lucky if I bump into them while they’re working retail, in which case I coolly and nonchalantly check their name tag and try to pass it off that I’ve remembered them so well after all these years).

However, for some reason, that didn’t happen when I ran into Steven (a pseudonym), a student I taught about six years ago. I was walking in my neighbourhood with my head down, daydreaming about unicorns or something, when a voice suddenly said, “Do you remember me?” Of course, at first, I didn’t, but then after he named his high school, his name miraculously came to me, and when I said his name, Steven cracked a huge smile, like I’ve validated him somehow. I even remembered his brother’s name, Billy (also a pseudonym) and we got to chatting for a few more seconds before we parted ways. Steven wasn’t the greatest student, and neither was his brother, whom I also taught. They were more likely to be in trouble than engaged, more into chatting than algebra, but I remember feeling that deep down, they were good people but just grew up in a rough situation.

After my chat with Steven, I wondered why I remembered his name when I’ve embarrassingly forgotten other students’ names in the past. And that’s when I came to the conclusion that it’s probably because he and his brother were part of one of my fondest memories as a teacher. One math class, I decided to teach proportions and fractions through cooking. It had been a tough go with this group for a while, and my prior lessons weren’t exactly the most fun and practical either, so I thought maybe doing something hands-on and fun to shake things up would provide a spark. I decided to make guacamole with the class – easy to make, no need to heat anything, and it’s a crowd-pleaser. I gave a recipe out and my students had to scale it up. When my students realized that we were actually going to make something and not just scale up the recipe for the sake of doing it, they got excited. Kids got up and were chopping, cutting, measuring, mixing, and eventually, eating. The lesson wasn’t super-awesome by any means, but for whatever reason, my students responded in the way that I had hoped. Billy had such a good time, he was walking out to the hallway telling everybody who bothered to listen that we made guacamole, all while holding a plate with chips and mashed up avocadoes. Steven eventually came to the class to visit Billy, and he thought it was pretty cool, too, and both of them looked giddy in a way that I hadn’t seen prior to that, and I was glad that I was able to make a positive connection with them that day.

I suppose I remembered Steven’s name not because of all the math we did, but rather because of how he made me feel while we ate guacamole that his brother helped to make. Making an impact is really about making a connection. If I can’t remember names because I haven’t made enough of an impact with students, or don’t have a memory with them that stands out, then I need to do something about that and make sure that I find opportunities to make those kinds of memories and connections with students.

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