Sawubona! – The Importance of Names and How Not to Be Mr. Garvey

Milton Alan Turner, OFLA Editor of Electronic Media
French and Spanish Teacher, Saint Ignatius High School

Comedian Keegan-Michael Key created the character of substitute teacher, Mr. Garvey, who constantly mispronounces every student’s name. To make matters even worse, he is completely oblivious to his mistakes and gets belligerent with students when they do not respond to being called by the incorrect name. Mr. Garvey is entirely unaware that his inability to connect and communicate with students is entirely his own doing. Obviously, we as effective educators never want to be like Keegan-Michael Key’s character.

Interpersonal communication is one of the main focuses of a world language classroom and is the act of talking with someone else. Interpersonal communication requires listening to one another, negotiating and interpreting meaning, and arriving at a mutual understanding. Successful interpersonal communication often involves building trust.

Dr. Yee Wan, in her Education Week article “How ‘My Name, My Identity’ Can Create a Global Consciousness Locally” published August 29, 2016, noted that:

while it may seem a little thing to some, mispronouncing a student’s name does have an impact on their identity. By mispronouncing a name, it may indicate you are not taking the time to get to know that individual. What does this tell them? What effect might this have on academic progress? How does this impact their sense of belonging at school?

In the context of global education, we talk about how important it is for students to feel proud of who they are and to have the ability to connect with people from different languages and backgrounds locally, and also around the world. Names may have deep and important ties to both family history and culture, and making the extra effort to use a person’s preferred name and pronounce it correctly is a small step that can create a big impact. (Wan)

As world language teachers, we must be especially sensitive to the need to respect our students’ cultures. 

In the Education Week article “Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep” published on May 10, 2016, Corey Mitchell noted that: 

for students, especially the children of immigrants or those who are English-language learners, a teacher who knows their name and can pronounce it correctly signals respect and marks a critical step in helping them adjust to school…Butchered names are not just a problem for English-learners and immigrants; students from a number of cultural backgrounds have their names garbled or ridiculed. Hawaiian and African-American students, with names that link to their ancestry, also shared stories of how constant mispronunciations made them feel uncomfortable with their names. (Mitchell)

Students are unlikely to be open to our target languages and cultures if we exhibit little empathy for theirs. 

Sikuhona is a Zulu greeting meaning, “I am here to be seen.” The response is Sawubona meaning means “I see you” or “we see you.” The first is the announcement of a desire to be fully present, to show up as one’s true self.  The response is an acknowledgement not just of your presence, but of your worth. It’s saying, “we see you, we value you, we honor you.” Refusing to call people by their proper or preferred names refuses to see them. It renders them invisible and powerless. 

What’s in a name? Everything. Our identities are nuanced and complex. They contain many aspects, inherited and chosen. When someone has stepped up and invited you to see them as their full authentic selves, we must be respectful and accept. When people present themselves to be seen, we must see them as they are, not as we want them to be. Refusing to use their given and preferred name is the equivalent of refusing to see their presence. It is an overt act of denial and minimalization. 

As Punita Chhabra Rice pointed out in her article “Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal” published in Education Week on November 15, 2017 ,“pronunciation matters. Research has found that students’ socioemotional well-being and worldview can be negatively impacted by teachers’ failure to pronounce their names properly, and can even lead students to shy away from their own cultures and families…

Mistakes are acceptable, and they will happen. The important thing is to make an effort to learn from them. As any dedicated teacher knows, good teaching is not about doing everything perfectly but about constantly striving to improve our own pedagogy and compassion for our students.”

Not only do students engage in interpersonal communication with each other, we as teachers also engage in interpersonal communication with our learners. We must also model respect while negotiating meaning and arriving at mutual understanding. We must do everything in our power to NOT come across as Mr. Garvey to our students! We all have our blind spots.  But once we are made aware, once we are made to see, once we hear the invitation “I am here to be seen,” we can no longer remain blind. We must accept the call to see.

Seeing is only the beginning. Once we acknowledge each other’s true identities, then we can proceed into a conversation, a dialogue. We must then work to get to the point where we can tell each other, “I’m here to be heard” and subsequently reply “We hear you.”

Works Cited

Mitchell, Corey. “Mispronouncing Students’ Names: A Slight That Can Cut Deep.” Education Week, 10 Jan. 2022,

Rice, Punita Chhabra. “Pronouncing Students’ Names Correctly Should Be a Big Deal (Opinion).” Education Week, 19 Feb. 2019, 

Wan, Yee. “How ‘My Name, My Identity’ Can Create a Global Consciousness Locally (Opinion).” Education Week, 29 Aug. 2016,

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