Names and Norms

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go…
Where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came,
You want to be where you can see,
Our troubles are all the same.
You want to be…where everybody knows your name.
Isn’t it funny how sometimes the most subtle of life events can transform us back to another time? For me, the song lyrics above take me back to growing up in the 1980’s, watching Cheers, one of my weekly favorite shows on television with my Dad. Now, I know what you may be thinking. A comedy about a group of adults who meet up regularly in their favorite watering hole. Is that really something a kid should’ve been watching, and with his parent? Well, let me remind you, this was a simpler time.
One of my favorite characters was a witty king of one-liners, Norm, who was always prepared with a quip, upon entering Cheers. His response, however, was preceded by an important detail, which can be found by watching this three second clip: Cheers Norm .
See what happened there?
Norm was greeted, by name, and routinely so. Welcomed into a familiar community – his community – that allowed him to be comfortable in his own skin. Norm knew he was among others, some of whom shared his life challenges, some of whom could empathize and listen, and others of whom had unique challenges of their own, who can lend an ear or even, relate to Norm’s circumstances.
Not that I was thinking about any of this while I was watching and laughing along to the laugh track with my Dad, but now, as a middle school principal, I have a new appreciation for this show.
How often do we go about our lives and our work without stopping to engage in the important things. So often throughout my life, I’ve benefited by the generosity of others. This has reminded me to stop and do this more often. As a result, I’ve recommitted to making sure I am doing the little things that sometimes make a big difference for someone else. If I’ve spoken to you on the phone lately, or we’ve interacted via GHO or Voxer this year, or even better, we’ve encountered one another in person, I want to say thank you. You’ve helped me do this. So…thank you.
What does this have to do with being a school leader, an educator, or someone fortunate to work with and for children?
Now more than ever, we need to commit to the small things. For example, what if we made the use of names one of our norms?  
In October and again in November, I had the good fortune to chaperone two student trips; one with my teenage son’s school and the other with the students at the school where I serve as Principal. Since those trips, I have carried, in my pocket, two laminated pieces of paper, neither of which is larger in size than a business card. One of these cards has the names of students who were in my “meal group” and the other has students’ names from my “activity group”. I carry these around so that each day, I am reminded to check in with as many of these students by name.
Now, as one might imagine (if you work with adolescents, you know this), some engage with me and respond, some ignore my greeting, a few look at me, like, “Why are you talking to me?” I take none of this personally, but rather feel good knowing that these students are known, and know in our school, they are known. Kids need to hear their names. Greeting them allows me to consider some of the challenges they’re facing, remembering their best challenge is my worse challenge, as a kid and now, as an adult. (Remember what I said before, watching Cheers with my Dad was during a simpler time, in the world and in my world.)
If you’re lucky like me, maybe your school has an Advisory program or a character education or SEL program of some sort. But don’t feel like you need one of these programs to make names the norm.
One of the biggest challenges of school leaders today is what results when we focus on what we “have to do” instead of what we “get to do”. Each of the following ideas requires minimal preparation, other than scheduling them on your daily and weekly checklist, and maybe asking for an “accountability partner” to help you.
3 ways to promote an inclusive school community:
1. Opening Doors: One of the daily habits I have worked to build is to meet and greet our students, as often as possible throughout the school day. One of the best high traffic, low pressure meeting places, is where I can hold a door for students. These spots provide the opportunity for eye contact, the exchange of pleasantries, and an opportunity for me to use a student’s name and for him/her to hear his/her name. An unintended consequence, I’ve learned, is that students have begun to hold doors for one another, and for their teachers. A component I’ve added over the years is to incorporate a “pitch counter” which I use as a “hello” or “good morning” counter. In middle school, this has been a fun way to remind adolescents that sometimes we adults need the reciprocal greeting as much as our students need to hear it. You’d be surprised how helpful teenagers can be, especially when you tell them you’re “just looking for a 100th person to say good morning to you that day”.
2. Name Cards: Keep a list of names of students on an index card in your pocket. Learn these names by asking questions of your school counselor, psychologist, nurse, teachers, and paraprofessionals with whom they work. Refer to the names on the card daily, and update it regularly. This will help, not only as a physical reminder to stay connected with students, but also to reminder that behind each of these names is a unique story. Collaborative leaders are catalysts to those around us, to ensure that students succeed, when they are known, and they know they are known. When we write names down, it seems as though it promotes our using them with greater frequency – that’s good for everyone.
3. Two-by-Ten: Sometimes we encounter students whose names we know before we meet them face-to-face. You know who I’m talking about – “THAT kid”. Well, that kid needs us more than any of us know, and he’s going to ask for it in many ways that will challenge how we choose to respond. One strategy I’ve adopted for many students (and even some adults) is what researcher Raymond Wlodkowski refers to as, the Two-by-Ten Strategy . Simply put, select one student, and invest two minutes a day for ten consecutive days, speaking about any school-appropriate topic the student would like to discuss. This may take some practice and some artful questioning, but once achieved, the outcome is a personal connection, between a child and trusted adult. Do you have two minutes a day to invest in a child?
Why is this important? It’s about building efficacy, in one another and in our school communities. Caring teachers already do this, and with intentional practice, we can all do our part, in building a community of trust.
Peter DeWitt writes in, School Climate: Leading With Collective Efficacy (Corwin, 2018), “Collaborative leaders need to keep in mind that the experience for each student is different when it comes to classroom climate.” DeWitt goes on to note that, today, in a not-so-simple time, there are significant issues we can and should be tackling in the safe confines of our classrooms and school communities, among them, issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. DeWitt continues, “If schools are to be places where all students feel included, then we as educators need to have conversations, read books, engage in debates, and hang up posters and artwork that depict the very students who attend our schools and depict the very population that lives within our country.” At it’s most basic level, this begins with using one another’s name. This is where a “Culture of We” begins.


I’ve written previously about the work of Peter DeWitt and others in My #OneWord2017. It’s important of considering research to confirm or challenge our gut instincts as educators. However, when we look at the vital role Collaborative Leadership plays in impacting student achievement, teacher-student relationships (with an effect size of 0.72) are paramount to the success of individual students and in turn, can be a catalyst for success in our school communities.
Why not make a commitment, right now, to knowing your impact on student achievement and making the most of how you use it?
26 Days of Learning Leadership