The Struggle Over The Power Of Naming

Our guest author today is Leo Casey, former Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute and current Assistant to the President at the American Federation of Teachers. He is the author of The Teacher Insurgency (Harvard Education Press, 2020).

Do teachers have a “free speech” or “freedom of conscience” right to call students by the name and pronouns the teacher wants to use, rather than a responsibility to use the name and pronouns students’ provide for themselves—as some on the political right in education now claim?

I come to this question as someone who has spent the last four decades of my life as a teacher unionist fighting for the “freedom to teach.” For me and for the great preponderance of the teachers I have worked with, that freedom was never an unconditional right to do whatever we wanted to do in a classroom. Rather, it was our collective right to teach in accordance with the best educational practices, as understood by the professional teaching community.* To properly address the question of what name(s) a teacher should use, therefore, we must situate it in the work that teachers do, and the responsibilities that work entails.

One of the tasks that teachers face at the start of each school term is learning the names of their new students. It is one of those teacher tasks that non-educators see as just happening naturally, without any real effort: after all, how hard can it be to learn a name and connect that name to a person? But consider that for the typical U.S. middle school and high school teacher, the start of each school term involves learning all at once the names and faces of as many as 170 adolescents you just met for the first time. And you must achieve this objective in the context of everything else you need to do in the classroom, so it becomes clear that this is no easy undertaking. It’s not as simple as using a seating chart either.

Yet, as a teacher, it is a task that you want to accomplish as quickly as possible. Your ability to establish relationships with your students, and to have them understand that you care about them and their learning, is essential to their success in your classes. And you can only build those relationships when your students believe that you know who they are as individuals, which begins with knowing their names. In fact, the National Association of Bilingual Educators find this task so imperative to building a safe and welcoming climate for learning that they adopted the Santa Clara County Office of Education program, My Name, My Identity nationally. (Take The Pledge to honor student names here.)

When I was in the classroom, I developed a technique that helped me learn and remember student names more quickly. At the start of each term, I would do an introductory lesson on why names are important to us—the history of naming practices, the origins of “family names,” and the social significance of names. In a single lesson, I could touch upon only a few of the features of this fascinating subject, but it began the course with a topic that students found intrinsically interesting, and through which they could see themselves and their families as part of history. Since I developed this lesson while I was teaching in an inner-city high school in Brooklyn, NY, and my students were overwhelmingly African American, the lesson focused on examples from their history and culture. (For the teachers reading this, you can access my lesson plan and handout here.)

Before the lesson, I would assign for homework an essay in which the student would describe the reasons for their current “given name” (such as being named after someone else) and what they were able to find out about the origins of their “family name.”** In the class itself, I would have the students listen to four different passages that addressed the social importance of names and naming practices—two from studies of African American history and two from the works of well-known African American writers Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes. After each reading, I would ask questions that would require the students to analyze and interpret what they had just heard. During the lesson, I would also ask a few volunteers to read what they had written for their homework. My own reading of the student homework essays would prove invaluable in individuating my students and helping me remember their names.

I chose the Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes passages for this lesson because they captured in vivid language the social power dimensions of refusing to call a person by their chosen name.*** This refusal—the assumption of the power to decide how someone else should be named and addressed—is a negation of the autonomy and self-determination of that person. It is a declaration that “I have the power to define who you are and who you can become.” I first developed the lesson in the mid-1980s, long before there was any controversy over whether a teacher should call a student by the name and pronouns the student provides. But I did have fresh in my mind instances in the 1960s and 1970s when some people had assumed unto themselves the right to decide how someone else could be named and addressed. When Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar converted to Islam and changed their names to reflect their new faith, there was a small legion of sports reporters and news media commentators who insisted that they had the “right” to call them by their old names. The racial power-dimension of this refusal to use their new names was unmistakable. American Catholics who entered religious orders often changed their names: when my sister entered the School Sisters of Notre Dame, she took the name Sister Marian Michael, and no one ever said to her, “I have the right—despite your choice of name—to call you Eileen Casey.”**** Far too many Americans denied Ali and Jabbar the right to be addressed by the names that accorded with their religious beliefs and affiliations, while granting that same right to white Christians without the slightest objection. Many in the first wave of women who decided that they would not take the family names of their husbands when they married had an analogous—albeit less intense—experience, with men insisting upon the right to call them Mrs. So-and-so.

One of the elements of refusing to use a person’s chosen name that stands out in relief in the racial context is the negation of the individuality: as I note in the lesson, our names are a primary representation of our individuality. The racist negation of individuality takes many forms, sometimes painfully explicit (“All Chinese people look the same to me.”), but more often in the form of prejudicial racial stereotypes that operate sub rosa (“Black students don’t work hard, so what can you expect?”). It is quite clear from the passages used in this lesson that assuming the power to name the racial “other” is part of that negation of individuality. What became increasingly clear to me over my years of teaching this lesson and reading student essays on their names was that the naming practices of African American families were poorly understood in education and elsewhere, and that a not insignificant number of the families chose names that were designed to accentuate their children’s individuality in the context of a racist culture where that individuality would be under assault. This approach found expression both in unique created names and in unique spellings of more common names.

As the four passages in the attached lesson make clear, a struggle over the power of naming has been foundational to the history of social interactions among the races in the U.S, as members of the dominant white race have often assumed for themselves the unilateral right to set the terms on which these interactions would take place. Seizing the right to name the racial “other” is intimately connected to insisting upon forms of address designed to embody and reproduce this fundamental inequality of agency—that the white adult must be called Sir and Ma’am, and with formal titles of Mr., Mrs., Ms., and Miss, but that Black adults can be denigrated as boy and girl, and addressed by their “given name” without any title, even by white children. The beauty of these four passages is that they highlight the ways in which Black people resisted these efforts and reclaimed for themselves the power of naming—of determining their own being and destiny.

So where does this history of struggles over the power of naming leave us with respect to the claims of a “free speech” or “freedom of conscience” right to teachers to decide what names and pronouns they will use to address a student, without any regard for the student’s chosen name and pronouns?

Let’s start with the guidance of the professional teaching community. The Five Core Propositions of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards include, among the things that teachers should know and be able to do, the following elements:

  • Teachers Recognize Individual Differences in Their Students and Adjust Their Practice Accordingly;
  • Teachers Understand How Students Develop and Learn;
  • Teachers Treat Students Equitably;
  • Teachers Know Their Mission Transcends the Cognitive Development of Their Students.

It does not require much elaboration on these elements to understand that they provide the basis for establishing productive relationships between teachers and their students, relationships that assure students that their teachers know and care about them as individuals. And that is a crucial first step toward student success. What is also clear is that they are completely inconsistent with a teacher refusing his students the fundamental respect and human dignity of addressing them by their chosen name and pronouns.*****

There may well be a small number of teachers who take personal affront at the decisions of others to live their lives in fidelity to who they are, teachers who believe that judging those decisions is so fundamental to their own sense of self and to their religious beliefs that they cannot address students who are gender non-conforming and transgender by the names and pronouns the students use. Under our First Amendment, those teachers have every right to that sense of self and that religious belief. But what they don’t have is a right to act out that belief in a public institution dedicated to the education of all Americans, a public institution that is charged with providing a safe, welcoming learning environment for all students—including gender non-conforming and transgender students. They don’t have a right to make public education into an institution of invidious discrimination against a class of students. This is one educator who believes that they need to find themselves new employment.

What has become painfully evident to me in recent months is that the last frontier of socially acceptable bigotry in the U.S. is around the gender non-conforming, especially transgendered people. In education, gender non-conforming and transgender students have become the target of a moral panic that is fueled by the most lurid and outlandish claims of how their very presence constitutes a threat to other students. During the pandemic, numerous state legislatures have been seized by the idea that among most important pieces of legislation they need to pass are laws that prohibit transgendered students from athletic competitions. Yet in the real world, it is the gender non-conforming and transgender people—especially Black and Brown people—who are the subject of violent attacks, and it is the gender non-conforming and transgender students who face the most violence in our schools, especially given the campaign of hate waged against them. We teach our students to stand up to bullies; we can do no less ourselves.

- Leo Casey


* This is an argument I made at more length in my book The Teacher Insurgency, Chapter 10. A high school teacher, for example, does not have the freedom to decide that he will deliver lessons as lectures, when all educational research points to lectures as the poorest possible method for teaching adolescents. The five core propositions and standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards distill the best teaching practices, as understood by the professional educational community.

** Since our students experience and live in a variety of family structures, it is important to make this exercise inclusive of all of their experiences; for example, a student who has been adopted may have come to their name differently than a student who lives with their birth parent(s), and should not be made to feel lesser as a result.

*** The original Maya Angelou passage, from her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, explicitly includes the racial epithet which I rendered as n***** in the handout. I struggled with what was the best way to handle that over the course of my teaching career. It is a powerful passage, and part of its power lies in the way in which the epithet is employed against Margaret, the character based on Maya’s own life. I worry that too often we ‘prettify’ oppressive ugliness, which is what Angelou is vividly describing, when we remove all mentions of the epithet. For this reason, I resisted the idea that I should drop the passage altogether. But context is very important here. When my classes were entirely students of color and overwhelmingly African American students, and when they had already read the book and were familiar with it, it was one thing for a student to read the word aloud; when I was in a different school later in my career, teaching multiracial classes with white students and students of color, including Black students, together, it was a different matter, which became clear to me when I thought about who would read it and how that would be understood. I decided to use n******, which students would read as ‘n’ word. But even as I saw it as necessary in that setting, I will confess that I have never been completely comfortable with my decision to alter Angelou’s text, even in this modest way, for this purpose.

**** After Vatican II, the S.S.N.D.s decided to use their birth names, so today my sister is known as Sister Eileen Casey.

***** Many states have ‘code of ethics’ for educators, and like the National Board standards, they lay out responsibilities to students that would require a teacher to use the name provided by the student. The National Model Code of Ethics for Educators (which provides the framework adopted by many states) includes among the responsibilities of educators:

A. The professional educator respects the rights and dignity of students by:

  • Respecting students by taking into account their age, gender, culture, setting and socioeconomic context;
  • Interacting with students with transparency and in appropriate settings;
  • Communicating with students in a clear, respectful, and culturally sensitive manner…

B. The professional educator demonstrates an ethic of care through:

  • Seeking to understand students’ educational, academic, personal and social needs as well as students’ values, beliefs, and cultural background;
  • Respecting the dignity, worth, and uniqueness of each individual student including, but not limited to, actual and perceived gender, gender expression, gender identity, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, disability, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and culture; and
  • Establishing and maintaining an environment that promotes the emotional, intellectual, physical, and sexual safety of all students…
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