What They Don’t Teach in Teacher School: How to Take Attendance

As I work on my manuscript I thought y’all might like a sneak peek. My book is at least partially about how the lessons I learned in teacher school were completely un-useful my first year of teaching. Check back next Tuesday for another lesson I learned the hard way, or look at the list compiled in the tab up top.

How to Take Attendance

Attendance was my first problem. People who are surviving day to day in the midst of poverty do not have the time to come pre-register their kids at school. The kids  switch schools from year to year. The numbers and faces of high poverty schools fluctuate constantly. I got my attendance lists the day school began, and somehow “how to pronounce non-white names” was not something it had ever occurred to me to learn.

All cultures have different rules about names and how to go about saying them. This was no exception. I don’t mean to mock any of my students beautiful and carefully selected names. I mean to only mock my own ignorance of the system that was so evident to everyone else in the room.

But there I was, at the front of the room butchering almost every name that came across my lips. Demon has the emphasis on the second syllable as does Terrell and Darrell. C-i-a is pronounced sha in Laquicia, Tamecia, and Quanicia. Also, all three of those middle vowel sounds are a long e. My nasal short a was hilarious to students as that sound comes straight out of my nose.

I only looked more inept when I assumed a boy was a girl based on the name (apparently, Diamond is like Jordan, acceptable for either gender.) Being unable to put names to faces because I could not yet distinguish boy names from girl names was winning me no friends. 15-year-old boys are not amused when you say their name followed by “can she raise her hand?” Especially when he has his hand raised right in front of you.

Every class period I had about three kids who needed to be added to the list. Every class period they would tell me their name as though I would be able to spell it by sounding it out. After about seven painful attempts I learned to let the kids write their own names on my list.

It didn’t even occur to me until about six names into first period that I was in over my head. My first period knew before I got to the second name.

The kids wanted me to call them by their street names. It seems many of the kids had what they referred to as their “government names” the ones that I was bumbling through as I took role, and then they had the names that everyone actually called them (I suppose when your name is Austintavious you sort of need a shorter handle). Now, I know that this is an honor. If the kids want you to call them what their mother calls them, it means that you matter to them. They want you to really know who they are.

All I knew then was that this street name thing might get me fired. Imani broached this subject with me first. “Ms. Norman, nobody calls me Imani. Can’t you just call me Juicy?” I swallowed. Hard. I tried to say it casually. “You want me to call you Juicy?” “Yeah everybody does.” “So, if I called your mom to talk about you…she would say ‘how is Juicy doing in your class?’” She looked at me like I was a complete idiot. “I don’t think that is a good idea. I think I’ll just call you Imani.” She rolled her eyes and sighed.

Two kids later it was Malik’s turn. “Ms. Norman, nobody calls me Malik” “Well then, what should I call you?” “Pappy” I am quite sure my already overly expressive sometimes buggy eyes became even more cartoon like. I literally choked and croaked out “You want your white teacher to call you Pappy?” “Yeah, call me Pappy.” At this point I pictured the principal walking by as I called “hey Pappy, can you get that book for me?”

“Sorry Malik, I have bills to pay, I can’t afford to lose this job.”  The plus side of these sorts of exchanges was they brought me closer to the bell ringing. That term “Saved by the Bell,” I hadn’t realized they were talking about the teacher.

16 thoughts on “What They Don’t Teach in Teacher School: How to Take Attendance

  1. reminds me so much of my first day of teaching. Street names, pronunciation issues, and all. One class had 10 more (previously unregistered) students than desks and I kind of just stared at them for a few minutes while a tip from pre-planning played in my head: “Good classroom management starts on day one. Have an organized seating chart so they know you are prepared!”

    That year had some lovely moments and I learned so much, but, wow, do they not prepare you in college at all.

  2. Abby, I teach in an all black suburban school outside of Cleveland and I can’t tell you how funny this story is to me. I know it may not have been too comfortable for you, but I go thru this every year. The best part for me is that since I teach French & Spanish I give them all foreign 1st names and only use their last name. 26 years of this nonsense of naming kids works my nerves!!!!! I get so excited to see real names on my roster, isn’t that sad.

  3. Abby Abby Abby

    You got me cracking up over hear cause I did the same thing my first year teaching in El Paso. Wow! Love this story. So full of life! Keep at it story-sister.

  4. I butchered quite a few names in my five years teaching. And even had two students one year that did not respond to their legal names at all. They were only 4 and no one ever called them by the name on their birth certificate. The program I worked for had a pretty strict rule about not using nicknames for this very reason. We wanted to help ensure that the children knew what their legal names were by kindergarten. I’ve said many times I could write a book about what I didn’t learn in school. Great idea! And you write beautifully! I can not wait to read more.

  5. My first years of teaching brought me to a group of students with Polish last names. What a challenge when the name has multiple consonants in a row: Cvrtlyki. And just last year in a Jr. college an adult woman nearly 40 years old wanted to be called Peachy. I suggested I all her a by her given name since it was more professional.

  6. Oh wow…. I can relate from a diff angle. I do school pics for fall & spring at many different schools & districts. I try to address the kids by the name in the computer (their ‘government’ name usually). Sometimes they’ll tell me a name & cuz idk how its spelled, I don’t see it; I’ll see a word that is a name & I’ll have no clue how it should b pronounced (which by default means i don’t know if its masculine or feminine). Then there are schools that are more international w/ students from Asia or the middle east & that always makes things interesting.
    One time I had to type in a boy’s name & I had to keep asking him to repeat himself since he wouldn’t speak in a way I could hear. He started to get annoyed by this. I pointed out that wanting to spell his name correctly was a sign of respect. He backed off the annoyance attitude.

    Keep the stories coming 🙂

  7. I taught a young woman once named Cassandra, but everybody called her Fruit. When I talked to her mom and told her that Cassandra was getting behind on her homework, she said, “I’ll have to talk to Fruit about that.” I started calling her Fruit Salad, Fruitbat, Fruit Cocktail…….which she thought was funny.

    • I once had a student (Jake) whose handwriting sometimes made his name look like “Juice”. So we called him juice. That same school had a student named EZ.

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