From Mr. Killstudent's Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: How to Take Attendance

June 9, 2009


Attendance is the most important duty of any substitute teacher.  At first, it was also the dullest.  Imagine if you were the opening act of a comedy show, and had to begin by reading names, one by one, in the phone book.  In class, by the time you hit the B’s, bored students begin pairing off in conversation, which you then gradually have to shout above, which means the volume war is already underway.  I used to dislike attendance.  Now, I actually look forward to it.

I remember going to one school to sub for the first time – in a “high risk” area – and receiving a sub folder that had nothing but class rosters and a stack of referrals.  No map, or fire drill routes, or phone directory, or list of school rules.  I never read those things anyway, but when they weren’t there, I began to grow wary of such a minimalist approach to education.  When I arrived in the classroom, which had the tint of a banana Now & Later, I found no lesson plans.  I cluelessly shuffled through some papers on the absent teacher’s desk, then checked the sub folder again: nope.  Nothing tucked behind those rosters and referrals.  It was about then I began to hear the growing rumble, the stampede of eighth graders echoing down the hall, headed straight for me.

This is when you better hurry the hell up and go nag the teacher next door, who sighs loudly and grabs a ditto to Xerox.  She takes her time – a subtle punishment for me – how dare I ask the school to actually do its job?  Meanwhile, back in my classroom, behavior entropy has begun.  Chatting is devolving into loud laughing, which then quickly mutates into casual cussing, then running and chasing, and throwing, and hitting, and all the other reasons why the Lord invented referrals.

But before I could worry about that, I had to get through attendance.  I knew this because earlier that week at another school, I had gotten a stern phone call from the office.  It had been a particularly rough day, with very little learning or anything resembling it going on.  So when I heard the phone ring, I braced myself for a lecture on effective classroom management.


Yes, this is Barb in the office.  We need you to please send down your attendance in the first ten minutes of each class period.  The instructions are right there on the sub folder.”

“Oh. Sorry. I’m sending a student right now.”

She must have heard the noise in the background, which sounded like twenty-five TVs, on full blast, in the same room.  But no; not a word about that.  I soon realized that my main function as a sub was not pedagogical, but custodial.  From the office’s point of view, as long as the students were in the room and accounted for, whatevs.  In the poorest schools, I served the purpose of a prison guard: keep some students in the room, others out of the room, and send the worst ones to isolation.  In slightly richer schools, I was more of a babysitter.  In the richest schools, perhaps a scarecrow.

And on this day I was in a poor school, and it was time for cell block count.  I read the first name.

“Jessica Allen.”

My weak voice barely penetrated the din.  Unsurprisingly, no one responded, or even looked my way.

“Jessica Allen,” I repeated, louder.  A girl in the front row glanced in my direction and, I think, half-raised her hand.  While thinking of how the hell I would get through the next 36 students at this pace, I noticed all the names on the roster included a middle initial.

Jessica M. Allen!

OK, so it definitely was the girl in the front row.  She looked at me expectantly, and a little pissed off.

“What’s the ‘M’ for?  Marie?”

No,” she said, squinting with disdain.






“Ew. No.”


She smiled, and blushed a little.  “Yeah.  I didn’t think you would get it.”

Honestly, I didn’t think I would either.  But it’s my grandma’s middle name, so it surfaced like a magic eight ball answer.  At this point I noticed the class was marginally quieter.  Plus, this was fun!  I decided to try again.

“Devonte J. Brown!”

A student the back reaches his arm up, without breaking conversation with the boys around him.

Devonte Joseph Brown?”  I call out.  He turns around, and now, suddenly everyone is quiet.


“Is the ‘J’ in your name for ‘Joseph’?”


“How about….ummm….Justin?”  Scattered laughter.

Devonte looks at me, incredulously.  “Naw.  Think ghetto.”  Everyone laughs.  And I break into a smile, surprised and appreciative of his candor.  Time for me to do the same, and not slip back into boring teacher mode by chiding him for racial insensitivity.  I pause for a second to think, now in complete silence.


The whole class erupts in laughter.  Turned out I was wrong, but no matter.  It was enough for them to see a whiter-than-white teacher try to guess a black name.  Or even acknowledge the difference between white names and black names.  So I continued.


Devonte points at me, “That’s it!!!“, followed by the loudest reaction yet by the class, even some applause.

I did each name the same way, with students actually eagerly anticipating their name approaching on the list.  Several guesses were followed by laughter, then a wake of conversation.  The class was probably getting just as loud and rowdy as it was when I had begun, but now they were focused on me, which somehow made it okay.  Classroom management is precious to us teachers, I think, much more because of our own egos than any educational gains.

Attendance took almost twenty minutes that day, which was fine, because that’s about how long it took the other teacher to return with an armful of word searches for the kids to do.  The theme of the word search: Winter.  The class?  Algebra II.

Whatever.  The attendance is done.  I did my job.
Handbook for Attendance Takers

**1. When playing the middle-name-game, there are some pretty safe guesses.  Assuming a predominately white school,

Female ‘M’: almost always Marie.  If not, try Michelle, then Mae, then Mary, in that order.

Male ‘J’: James or Joseph.  Next tier is John or Jeffery.

Female ‘A’: Ann, no doubt.  When you say it, the girl is usually slightly embarrassed at how easy her middle name is to guess.  Conversely, I enjoy the moments when shy and unpopular girl has a unique middle name, and a popular classmate coos, “ooh, that’s pretty!”

Male ‘C’: Guess Charles before you guess Christopher.

Female ‘G’: Easy.  Grace.  One of those names that is much more common as a middle name than a first.

These are just a few; write a comment if you wish to know the middle name hierarchy for a certain gender/letter!  Kids don’t know how predictably they’ve been named.  After you rattle off seven in a row on the first guess, they think you’re psychic.  Go with it!

**2. Assuming a predominately black school, the middle-name-game is much more difficult.  Many names begin with De- or Sh-, but are extraordinarily unpredictable.  Try a few lame guesses, then try to guess one letter at a time:

“D.  Hmmm.  Is the second letter ‘E’?”

“Is it D-E-M?”





And so on.  This can take a while, at first, and if you are losing their attention, you may need to lighten things up with a joke…

**3.  Jokes that have worked hundreds of times:

If you can’t get the middle name on the first couple guesses, try an absurdly old-fashioned or uncommon name.  “Agnes” is always good for a giggle, as is Ebenezer, etc.

Guess a name that is racially incongruous.  If it’s a white boy with a middle initial “J”, and the first few don’t work, try “Juan!  Jose!  Jesus!!!”  Or if it’s an “L”, “LeBron” is usually good for a laugh.

At some schools, the rosters print out the entire middle names of certain students.  When this happens, I pretend that it’s still only the middle initial that’s there.  Then I wait for the most uncommon name to come up:

“Rahul D. Singh”


The first guess is intentionally way off: “Hmmm.  Is the ‘D’ for David?”

He shakes his head and smiles.  “No way.  You’re never gonna get it!”

“Hmmm.  Is it…Dharanidhar?”

He stares at me in stunned silence.

“Whoa.  How did you know that?”

“Because I’m psychic.”


“No.  It’s actually written right here.”

Attendance Tricks, Middle Names Aside

Believe it or not, sometimes the middle name game doesn’t work.  If you are at the same school a lot, and the kids know you as ‘the dude that guesses our middle names’, the novelty wears off quickly.

What then?  Go back to being like a real teacher?  No way!  There’s plenty more novel fun to be had.

“I’m really bad with names.  Let me know if I butcher the pronunciation.”

Teachers always used to say this; now I do too, but perhaps for a different reason.

One time, after badly mispronouncing a student’s name, and slightly embarrassing her, I thought of how I could fix the problem.  I said, “I’m sorry I got your name wrong.  But I’m going to make it up to you.  I’m going to get everyone’s name wrong.  OK?”

She shrugs.

“OK, next up is Jammis Hogton.  Where’s Jammis Hogton?”

The students look at each other, confused.  Finally one smiles and says, “you mean James Houghton?”

“Oh, sorry!  I’m really bad with names.”

This works especially well with middle school kids, and younger.  A few names in, the kids are absolutely delirious from the silliness of it all, and excited by the challenge of decoding and translating the mispronunciation.

Twist: when you get to a name that is actually hard to pronounce, get it exactly right if you can.  When you do, their jaws will drop, and you can say, “well that one’s easy.”

Another variation: try reading the names backwards, and they can try to guess.  For instance, “Kevin Arnold” becomes “Nivek Dlorna.”  This works really well with 8th grade and under.  And there is no rationale necessary.  Just tell them, “I’m going to read your names backwards.”


This is why I look forward to attendance.  Instead of names being a chore, they give you a chance to focus, briefly, on each person in the room, and connect with them for just a moment.

When you walk into a classroom for the first time, you have just a couple minutes to either lose their attention or win them over.  The office knows this.  That’s what the folder full of referrals is for.  “Be firm with them,” they often say.  If I tried that, the kids would just laugh; they know they are the ones who run the school.  I like laughing more than threatening anyway, so I might as well laugh along with them.


“Would anyone like to take the attendance down to the office?”

A million hands shoot up.  I stroke my chin, squint my eyes, and look around the room, pretending to be deep in thought, considering whom to choose.

“Hands down.” I’ll finally say.  “I’ll let you take the attendance down…if you can guess my middle name.  It starts with a ‘J.’”


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15 Responses to “ From Mr. Killstudent's Lethal Bag of Teaching Tricks: How to Take Attendance ”

  1. lonnie on June 10, 2009 at 9:06 pm

    nice! your techniques remind me of something roald dahl would write into the best teacher, ever. has the middle name game EVER backfired?

  2. RustedJesus on June 10, 2009 at 10:29 pm

    I, too, love taking attendance. My students are considerably older, 18-22. I do this thing on the first day where I say their names and then walk up and shake their hand. 1) It helps me remember their name, 2) It subtly breaks the invisible line that separates their desks from the lectern, and 3) It's weird so they kind of get a kick out of it, or they think I'm weird and drop my class which is good, 'cause I'd rather teach 12 students than 20.

  3. Anna on June 12, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    This is hilarious. Suggestion: take this handbook for taking attendance and make it part of the Guerilla Guide to Substitute Teaching that you will write and publish. No, seriously.

  4. mr.killstudent on June 16, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    if it ever backfired, i don't remember. sometimes, maybe once in ten times, it doesn't catch on, and a few kids look at you strangely, which is fine – they'll be gone in 45 minutes and out of your life forever. one of the benefits of subbing.

  5. mr.killstudent on June 16, 2009 at 8:23 pm

    if you go into a new semester *knowing* you want half the class to drop, you could have some real fun with it.

  6. mr.killstudent on June 16, 2009 at 8:27 pm

    Thank you for the encouragement, and the prophecy!

  7. nonpretentious on June 16, 2009 at 10:40 pm

    I hear that is one of the benefits to contract work too. Maybe I should look into it.

  8. nonpretentious on June 16, 2009 at 10:41 pm

    RustedJes, I agree with Mr. Killstudent.

  9. pantsdeva on June 17, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    funniest one yet… can't wait for the book. keep it up, Wet tom!

  10. devinelizabeth on June 29, 2009 at 3:56 pm

    to mr. m. jason killstudent — the anthropological study that is rollcall is an amazing one. while white fancy people are practically killing themselves to come up with the most esoteric baby name possible, hiring baby name consultants, deciding on things like "apple" and "suri", the barrio baby names seem to stay in the same. in nearly every class there is a yesenia. and a jesus. and many fernandos and joses and miguels. absolutely no one here seems to want to go for the subtle — the kindergartener i met a few months ago whose mother named her Precious, for example. middle name? Angel.

  11. gimmeshelter on July 8, 2009 at 12:01 am

    i bet bringing up sibling names would be a good follow-up…for example, all the names in their family might start with the same letter. or be named after british royalty.

    i agree with pantsdeva and anna. this is totally chapter two. after the incendiary and thought-provoking introduction in chapter one, of course.

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