Deadnaming in the Classroom and How to Avoid It

Like so many school experiences in the U.S. over the last two years, my management, organization, and delivery of instruction as a classroom teacher has forever been altered by distance learning, one-to-one technology, and the use of a learning management system (referred to here as LMS). In 2021, some teachers opted to revert to pencil and paper upon returning to in-person school, but it seems that many teachers, like me, have irreversibly made the switch to digital paperless learning.

One of the major advantages of exclusively using an LMS is that the teacher never has to say, “Don’t forget to write your name on your paper.” In addition, there are numerous beneficial components that are baked into the mechanics of a robust LMS; including scheduling, due dates, and basic grading computation. But where the major learning management systems like Google Classroom have categorically failed students is in the insistent and pervasive practice of deadnaming.

“Deadnaming” is the intentional or unintentional practice of referring to someone, often transgender and nonbinary people, by a name they do not identify with, a name that is “dead” to them. The reason deadnaming is rampant in an LMS like Google Classroom is that the system relies on data collected from legal documents held by the school. It is increasingly common for transgender and nonbinary adults to legally change their names, but this opportunity is not available to the vast majority of queer K-12 students who are still minors. 

What is needed is a movement of educators pressuring the technology giants like Google to do the necessary work of creating space for chosen names in their LMS platforms. But what can teachers do until then? Plenty!

The place to begin in avoiding deadnaming in the classroom is to understand that teachers have almost complete control over what names they see and speak. It is true that what most teachers see on a computer screen in a gradebook or attendance form continues to be legal names (and that needs to change too). But teachers create paper rosters for their own records and for substitutes all the time, and there is no reason why these documents cannot reflect students’ chosen names. 

The only paper I print on a weekly basis is my attendance roster. I find comfort in a paper record of attendance. When a chosen name varies from a legal name, I do not include the legal name on my spreadsheet roster at all. This paper is what I refer to when learning names. I only need to connect chosen names to legal names when I am taking roll, grading, or meeting a parent / guardian at a conference or community event. I intentionally flood my eyes with chosen names as much as possible and minimize the time that my eyes are registering legal names.

Furthermore, I have recently adopted the practice of using a name scrambler to call on students at random rather than me choosing students to answer questions. Choosing students on my own is a practice that I believe is susceptible to my unconscious bias. I display the online name scrambler on the screen so that students see their name in addition to hearing it. I exclusively use chosen names in the name scrambler. Seeing, in addition to hearing, their chosen name in the classroom is an affirming experience for transgender, nonbinary, and questioning students. 

But what if a student whom a teacher already knows by a legal name is now asking to be called by a new chosen name? Do the work. Change the roster. Practice the new name on your own time. Everywhere that is possible and within teacher control, change references to that student to the new name. Full stop. Don’t ask what their friends call them. Don’t ask what other teachers call them. You might be the one adult with whom they trust to try out a new name, and if you hesitate or ask questions, they may no longer feel safe with you and retreat to the discomfort and inauthenticity of a legal name.

What if I forget and use a deadname? Apologize, promise to do better next time, and move on. Don’t reveal to a student that you are struggling to remember their chosen name. Do that work in private. Don’t give them excuses for why you continue to deadname them.

You might be the one adult with whom they trust to try out a new name, and if you hesitate or ask questions, they may no longer feel safe with you and retreat to the discomfort and inauthenticity of a legal name.

If an LMS deadnames students, any website that syncs with that LMS will also deadname students. I like the idea of Plickers (www.plickers.com). This website allows students to answer questions by displaying a code on a piece of paper that can be scanned by a teacher’s device. It is an interesting combination of low and high tech. 

I used Plickers in class in the Fall of 2021, and I failed to recognize the deadnames in Google Classroom that would transfer to the Plickers experience. After previewing how to answer questions using the cards, a student plainly and respectfully said, “I don’t like this website.” Out of ignorance I asked why. Right there on the screen for everyone to see was this student’s deadname. The student directed their ire toward the website rather than laying blame where it squarely belonged, with me.

Until my LMS allows for chosen names, I have vowed not to use academic game sites that sync with Google Classroom. These include, but are not limited to, Plickers, Quizziz, and Gimkit. Online learning platforms that I will continue to use because they allow students to provide a name include Kahoot! and Nearpod.

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3 thoughts on “Deadnaming in the Classroom and How to Avoid It

  1. Google Classroom would be okay if the school system allowed the students to edit their display name.

    Glad that Clever allows display name edits that populate to other systems.

    Like

  2. Thank you for this post. I am very conscious of trying to not use dead names in the classroom. This contains things that I had not even thought of. I would like to share it with my colleagues at work. Would that be okay? So many of my co-workers struggle with this.

    Like

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