John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.
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The late song master, Jim Croce, portrayed positive psychology principles in many of his ballads, including the hit I’ve Got A Name. This triggered a realization within me that addressing someone by their first name can have a reciprocal, and emotionally and physically empowering influence on self and others. There is something special, almost magical, about naming, one that can bring pleasure, engagement and meaning to both the greeter and recipient.
I first became intrigued with the naming process when I taught at Boston University in the late 1990’s. I met a graduate student in BU’s School of Education, Mark Harris, who wrote a paper on the topic. As a substitute teacher in a Boston area high school, he conducted an interesting exercise by learning the names of the majority of the student population. He claimed that “to remember faces is not enough to associate them to faces; faces can blend in the mind, and mistakes can be made. With the face one has to recognize the body, the voice, the posture, the habits, the responses. A person is a system of being in the world, and a name is the tag we attach to that total system. It encompasses quite a lot, not just a face. When I think of ‘Mickey Phelan’ or ‘Claire Darcy,’ I associate a hundred things with each of them; remembering a constellation of details about a student, paradoxically, is much easier and makes remembering the name and fact a piece of cake. The students whose names I have a hard time summoning up are the ones I don’t know much about. The elements of names, the ‘Mikes’ and the ‘Caitlins’ and the ‘Murphies’ and the ‘Mitchells,’ are not unique, but they stand for and indicate persons who are unique and uniquely valuable.”The power of naming came to light again for me last year when a fellow teacher at the Culver Academies told me that he thanked each student by name and shook each of their hands as they left class each day. He mentioned that the process was a good closure activity and a nice way to express gratitude for being an active participant in the learning process.
This simple action intrigued me. Of course, I shake hands with students as a way to acknowledge them, but never in a formal sense. So, I decided to formally greet by name each of my students as they arrived at the classroom door. This brought back positive images of my third grade teacher, Mrs. Robinson, who was there every morning to greet me: “Good morning, John. What a nice shirt you are wearing!” When she was absent one day, it just wasn’t the same. Her return to the class brought that subtle trigger that would set me up for the day. Her third grade classroom was a safe and optimistic place to be!
Similar to my 3rd grade teacher’s actions, I now stand at the classroom door and greet each student as they cross under the archway. A shake of the hand, a verbal greeting by name with eye contact welcomes them into a warm, inviting environment. I initially treated this engagement as an informal research study, just to see what the student’s responses would be. But now, it has become habitual. “Good morning, Zack. Good to see you.” “Hi Mary, I heard you got into your first choice for college.” “Ben, I’ve heard you are doing a great job as lacrosse captain.” At the end of class, I make every effort to be first to the door as the class leaves. In rare instances, when several students enter or began to leave when I am at my desk, they will come over to me to fulfill the transaction. And when the typical winter germs are on everybody’s hands, we resort to touching elbow to elbow, to prevent the spread of any bacterial or viral gifts!
The positive salutation embraces the three pathways to happiness: pleasure, engagement and meaning. First, authentically exchanging greetings is, more often than not, an enjoyable process and normally brings a smile to one’s face. Second, communicating verbally, visually and kinesthetically can be quite engaging – a sense of flow. The process of greeting or tendering a “good bye” by saying someone’s name, paired with a handshake or pat on the shoulder, can elicit a slight visceral response in self and others. This audio, visual and kinesthetic event can be very powerful and create a brief, yet engaged interaction. Of course, one must know which of the senses are most comfortable to elicit in others. I am attentive to the various cultural nuances of gestures, eye contact and touching, and hope that people find their way to greet in a comfortable and engaging manner. Third, an authentic interchange says: “You matter.”
Human beings have different motives, desires and appetites. Most people, however, yearn to be listened to, taken seriously, and feel wanted by others. The power of naming can bring out the “best in self and the best in others” in the domains of family, school, business, sports and other enterprises. I remember when my daughter was two 2½ years old and would announce to people: Hi, my name is Megan! What’s your name? I have come to realize that naming others at any age can be pleasurable, engaging and meaningful.
Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road
I’ve got a name, i’ve got a name
Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad
I’ve got a name, i’ve got a name
And i carry it with me like my daddy did
But i’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid
Movin’ me down the highway
Rollin’ me down the highway
Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by