In the Classroom

The first thing schools often get wrong for English language learners is their names

PHOTO: Charlie Nye / The Star
May Oo Mutraw, president of the Burmese Community Center for Education, works on spelling with Ngae Reh, 6, at the BCCE after-school learning time at Nora Elementary School in Indianapolis.

Easter Day, a North Central High School sophomore, was named after the religious holiday.

But when she first arrived from a Thailand refugee camp about 10 years ago, the Burmese student’s name was mistakenly recorded as “Ea Star Di” — a mistake that has stuck with her all throughout her school career.

Day said the mistake essentially has made Ea Star Di her official American name. It’s a surprisingly common error and an example of the confusion and chaos that most English language learners experience during their transitions to living in United States.

“I was nervous, confused, and I didn’t know what was going on,” Easter Day said of her first few weeks at Nora Elementary School.

Such errors also show the troubling level of cultural misunderstanding that immigrant students face at school. Would an American-born student’s name remain that badly jumbled for a decade? Almost certainly not.

Experts who work with Indiana’s growing population of English language learners say that taking the seemingly simple step of learning the correct spelling and pronunciation of students’ names is critical to helping them adapt to what is often a drastically different environment from what they knew in their home countries.

“Your name is your identity,” said Jessica Feeser, who directs the English language learners program at Indianapolis Public Schools. “It’s how you relate to yourself. The easiest thing you can do to build relationships with your students is just to pronounce their name accurately and correctly. We cannot underestimate the importance that acculturation has in a child’s success in school.”

Neineh Plo, who helps lead the Burmese Community Center for Education on the city’s North side, said most of his students’ names were misspelled in the process of coming to the U.S.

Since Burmese families don’t use last names, and because there’s often no easy or obvious English translation, mistakes are common during the resettlement process. Sometimes they’re further confounded by typos and confusion at the school and district level.

New residents often don’t go through the hassle of changing the spelling because of the work that goes along with jumping through bureaucratic hoops, Plo said. He said many people straighten out their names when they apply for citizenship years later.

“There have been families who are reluctant to correct their names because they did not want to have to deal with the consequences, like updating your birth certificate, telling the school or hospital,” Plo said, “so they just live with their own wrong names.”

Plo said what worries him is when teachers don’t ask their students about their real names and their meanings. After being called the wrong name for years, students start to lose a connection with the names they were given at birth.

“Because there’s no conversation about names, Burmese children do not get to talk about their name and explore the language,” Plo said. “Students just forget their own names. It hurts their confidence.”

The Indiana Department of Education trains teachers to help new students manage the change that comes with learning in a very different place, said Rachel Davidson, the department’s English learner and migrant education coordinator. Getting names right is part of that.

“We always start by emphasizing the importance of understanding where the student comes from and their cultural background,” Davidson said. “We talk about honoring the native language.”

Trish Morita-Mullaney, who is president of Indiana Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, said the common mishaps with English learners’ names represent a larger problem: We aren’t accepting as we could be to immigrants.

“We adapt to the dominant audience, but in that, what we are giving up?  What is being evacuated from our identify?” Morita-Mullaney said. “My name is my history and my legacy. It’s important that people get it right.”

Miriam Soto Pressley, who is an elementary school teacher in Hammond and sits on the American Federation of Teachers’ national advisory board on English language learners, said teachers should make a point to have a conversation with the student if they notice a student being called by a nickname or Americanized version of their name.

Soto Pressley said she once had a new student named Jorge come into her class mid-year, and noticed that his classmates started calling him George. After talking to Jorge’s mother, she decided to bring it up with the whole class and turn it into a lesson about respecting other cultures.

“We had a long conversation in my class with all the other children,” Soto Pressley said. “We all had a talk about proper names and what it meant to be given a name at birth and what the outcome was as far as how they felt, the respect issue.”

A few days later, his friends started calling him Jorge again.

“A name can do a lot,” Soto Pressley said. “A name can make you or a name can break you.”

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

readers helping readers

‘There will be questions you can’t answer’: Readers’ advice about tackling Charlottesville in the classroom

PHOTO: Monica Disare

After racist violence left one person dead in Charlottesville, Virginia last weekend, we asked educators for their best advice about handling students’ questions — and starting conversations of their own.

We know some teachers are veterans when it comes to tricky conversations. Others have found resources through #CharlottesvilleCurriculum, a Twitter hashtag that culminated in a crowdsourced list of anti-racism resources for educators.

Here’s what several of you told us about your plans. Readers, you can still add your tips or experiences here; we’ll continue to update this so others can learn from your work.


“I’ve learned that not all students are ready to talk about highly emotional topics and that it’s best to wait until they are ready to talk about it to [go] into an in-depth conversation. I’ve also learned that it helps to have students write about it first so that they can gather their thoughts.”
– J.S., ninth-grade special education teacher in Aurora, Colorado


“We began today’s lesson by analyzing photos from the weekend. Specifically, my freshmen practiced a) citing evidence in order make claims about each image and b) writing an extended caption that effectively summarized one of the images.

I’ve learned that I don’t need to have all the answers (and I let my students know that, too). I’ve also learned that reading and discussing high-interest, culturally relevant texts like “All American Boys” and “The Hate U Give” with my students makes it easier for us to have the hard but necessary conversations.

[The conversation was] difficult at times, but so worth it. Our students are extremely kind and empathetic, and because of them, I left school this afternoon feeling more hopeful than I did driving in this morning.”
Jarred Amato, high school English teacher in Nashville


“There is no one way to facilitate and it’s better to start then to be silent. I think it’s critical to actively listen and to ensure no one voice or position monopolizes. I also think it’s important to allow silence at times.”
– Jen, teacher-educator in New York


“It went well. I was able to connect the event to the Confederate era statues here in Memphis to get the students thinking about the local connections.”
– Kyle, 12th-grade social studies teacher in Memphis

“My students have worked on social justice theatre pieces for the past three years and this is, unfortunately, not the first time we have had to have such difficult conversations. I’m reminded of the fears discussed following the Michael Brown case and again after the presidential election. Somehow these brave kids have found a way to vent their frustrations in a positive way.”
– Jen Wood-Bowien, high school teacher in Memphis


“There will be questions you can’t answer. There will be kids you don’t reach.”
– Teacher, Southeast Colorado


“I’m surprised at how open the students can be and how we lose this humanity as we grow up.”
– Social studies teacher, Denver