(Glenn Mason is a former CPA who spent over 25 years in a variety of roles in corporate America. He is presently a New York City public high school teacher. This is in his twelfth academic year in his newfound career.)
“Sorry, come on up to the board and solve the next equation,” Mr. Edwards commanded.
It’s the 1970’s and I’m in the eighth grade taking ninth grade algebra. I’m “Sorry.” This is the name I was given by Mr. Edwards, my math teacher, who let the world know that I was a “sorry” student. “Sorry” is southern speak for lazy. I was deemed smart enough to accelerate in mathematics and he wasn’t having it.
I went to the board that day and everyday going forward solving equations, maxing exams, and proving I wasn’t a sorry student. Deep down inside, I was delighted that he took the time to give me a nickname. No one had ever done that before. I was motivated but didn’t realize it at the time.
Fast forward a few decades and I am now a teacher myself – social studies, primarily on the high school level. I say primarily, because I teach at a secondary school and grades six through eight are housed in my school. During my second year of teaching, our sixth grade social studies teacher left for a transfer to another school in the middle of the school term. I was asked to take on an additional class of middle schoolers. Reluctantly I accepted.
I’m very bad with student names and it was the middle of the school year. I’m sure the kids didn’t want to deal with a new teacher learning their names at that point in the year. I’m much better now, but was downright woeful at that time with name recall and connection. There was one young lady in this class who spent an inordinate amount of time at the beginning of the class period putting on makeup and “fixing her face”. I’m sitting or standing there each day asking myself why does an eleven-year-old need makeup? Well, one day I called upon her to read aloud and I couldn’t remember her name. I stumble trying to remember her name and finally say,
“‘Ms. Thang,’ will you read the next section?”
All eyes were bewildered for a moment until their gaze followed mine. Everyone could see who I was addressing, including the young lady in question. She looked at me, scowled for a moment and then smiled, looked to her textbook and began reading. Slight giggling by the class ensued, but there was no rejection or signifying. It seems everyone knew what I meant and that I was on point.
For those who are in the dark, ‘Ms. Thang’ is an urban term for a woman who thinks that she is “all that.”
Now mind you I came to find out that ‘Ms. Thang’ was a chess prodigy who was not applying herself in class. From that time onward however she became a more focused student. She even cut back on the makeup preparation at the beginning of the period. (I’m sure she simply chose another time for her afternoon application.)
At parent-teacher night that semester I met her mother for the first time. Throwing caution to the wind, I told her,
“You know my name for your daughter is ‘Ms. Thang’.”
“I know that’s right!,” came her bellowing response in laughter.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I’d begun motivating students just like Mr. Edwards motivated me. As the years of teaching rolled along, I seemed to have a new “Ms. Thang” each and every year. Often, young ladies would compete for the nickname.
As the years progressed, “Ms. Thang” went on to excel in high school and continue on to college. She is working with children at the nearby PSAL, teaching them to play chess among her other duties. She is hoping to become a teacher one day herself.
Teachers want each and every student to volunteer to participate in class. Whether it is answering a question, stepping up to read aloud or whatever, we want each and every child to contribute and actively engage in the day’s learning activity. But I believe in the educator doctrine that students need to either be “a volunteer or a victim.” Step up on your terms or you will step up on mine.
Once I had a young lady who would never volunteer. She was a sophomore in my Global History & Geography class. When I would call on her she had a startling reaction. Her eyes would go absolutely wide and she would freeze. Her name became “Deer in the headlights.”
At parent-teacher night for this young lady her mother sits down with me and immediately confronts me with,
“I hear you have a name for my daughter.”
Her face is serious. I’m becoming concerned. I wasn’t insulting her daughter; I was simply trying to push her forward. I tell her the nickname and begin to explain to her its meaning. Suddenly, the mother bursts out laughing and tells me that I got her daughter right and to keep on keeping on.
Now this young lady met my challenge. By the time of my African American and Latin & Caribbean Studies classes during her junior year, she was self-confident, forceful in her opinions, insightful in her comments. She became a force to be reckoned with. She is in now in her first year of study in college.
I’ve only used this nickname once more as of yet. My success with this young lady was fleeting. While she became more confident by her junior year, it seemed to have disappeared by the time she was a senior.
Another memorable student would like to tell me what to do – or at least try to. She came to our school as a transfer student during sophomore year. As a result, she had no prior freshman knowledge about me as a teacher before entering my classroom. I soon found her to be a true student scholar. She appeared to respect me, but seemed to feel the need from time to time to tell me how to do things. Finally I addressed her one day with,
“Do you mind, ‘Vanessa,’ if I do things my way?”.
“Who is ‘Vanessa,” she inquired?
“My ex-wife,” I responded. “Obviously you must think that’s who you are when you keep telling me what I need to do.”
Thus began the new dynamic in our student-teacher relationship. ‘Vanessa’ was now her new name.
At parent-teacher night I met her father. My words to him were straight to the point.
“Can I shake the hand of the other grown man that your daughter likes to boss around?”
He didn’t skip a beat but replied immediately as he took my hand.
“That man would be me.”
I knew I wasn’t alone. And being “Vanessa,” she flipped the script on me one day. Let’s just say that I have a forceful personality in the classroom. (My students would be more direct and colorful in their descriptions). One day I was being rather strident in my instruction to the young scholars and “Vanessa” interrupted me to ask,
“Yo, ‘Mr. Menopause,’ are you having a bad day?”
Turnabout is fair play and all I could do at that moment was howl in laughter. Like it or not, I had my second nickname.
I wish I could say that my nickname for “Vanessa” motivated her in some way but, in all honesty, she already had an abundance of motivation. She was a young woman on a train ride to success. But I will let myself believe that I helped conduct her along her journey. She is currently a junior at one of the Northeast’s premier institutions.
Never underestimate ways to motivate your students. They appear even when you don’t know it.