Music Teacher Challenge: How to Learn and Remember Student Names


Music teachers, especially at the elementary level, have so many students. So Many Names! Learning all those names (and their correct pronunciations) is an important step towards showing respect, building trust,  and creating a positive classroom community. But, there is still the huge challenge of actually learning those names. 

My experience has been in an elementary school with 500-750 students.  The population in my school was very transient, so our numbers varied a lot over the years. The biggest in/out changes came at the end of each quarter.  I remember coming back to school one January to find that we had 50 new students and we had lost quite a few as well.  Learning names wasn't just something I had to do in August. It was year-round.

These are my top 5 strategies for learning student names.

Take roll beginning of class     

This is my first & best strategy for matching names & faces, so I budget time for this during every class. It only takes a few minutes and I can speak to students more confidently when I have reviewed their names.  Calling roll also gives me a record of who is absent.  The class will let me know if someone is absent or with another teacher in the building. Knowing this is helpful to see attendance patterns/problems and also helps at grade time.

Use a seating chart    

A seating chart really comes in handy when I can remember working with a student who was sitting "over there" but I can't remember the student name.  Our brains learn by seeking out patterns.  Seeing those names in the same arrangement as the students were sitting can be so much more effective than looking at an alphabetical list.

I created my paper seating charts using small sticky notes cut in half.  They were just enough room to write a name. Then, the seating could be rearranged on the fly to accommodate student needs simply by switching the sticky notes.  No erasing or scratching out or looking for white out. These charts were placed in sheet protectors on a binder ring in the order of my schedule.  When the next class arrives, turn the page.

These are the sticky notes that I use (*affiliate link):

Photo seating chart or roster

Being the techie that I am, I jumped at a chance to have a gradebook & seating chart on my first iPad. If this sounds like you, look into iDoceo app.  It has come so far since I first started using it back in 2012! The ability to add student photos to a seating chart and have multiple (up to 10) charts for each class was a huge improvement to my paper charts.  The charts are easy to rearrange, too.  Just press & hold on the student image and then you will be able to drag it to another location.

The app has many gradebook, planner, and schedule features that I won't get into today, but I will mention one helpful feature. When you have created a grade column in the grade book view, it is pretty simple to add grades in using the seating chart view.  A tap on the student image will bring up the number keypad. Whatever is entered on the seating chart will appear in the appropriate column in the gradebook view.  

The iDoceo app is a paid app, but I found it so useful that it was worth the money to me. You can find out more about this app here: 

Work on first names only at the beginning  

When I was new to my school and had 750 student names plus teacher names to learn, it was a survival strategy to work on first names only for a couple of months. Having that photo seating chart (see above) got me through the first quarter of entering grades.  I began working on last names as the year went on.  

This strategy worked most of the time.  But...there was that one year.  I had one child who's name I could not get right. I missed it every time, even when I really thought I had it. Then I started to figure out that maybe this child was coming to music more than once per week. What was going on? I said something to the art teacher and she began to laugh at me. What? Well, it turns out that we had a set of twins in that grade level! I hadn't paid any attention to the last names.

Name games

Name games and name chants are a way to turn this teacher task into a musical experience for students. They provide the repetition of the names needed for learning. Steady beat practice is a worthy musical goal, especially for younger students. Students learn best in a safe, nurturing environment. Building classroom community through games will be beneficial to all.
I definitely include a name game or chant in my lessons for the first four or five lessons. Then, I like to bring out a new name game every couple of months, or whenever we get new students. You can find some of my favorite name games in this post.

Practice, Practice, Practice

We musicians know the value of practice! I make an effort to use student names as often as possible, especially when I see students outside of the music room. If I can't remember a name when I see a student in the hall, I admit that I am having trouble remembering and will ask them to help me learn their name or to teach me their name. Students are usually happy to be my teacher!  

While the challenge is great, the benefits are huge for building relationships with our students! Let me know your favorite name learning tip in the comments!

Musically yours,


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