Face-blindness and teaching – some advice from an experienced teacher

Face-blindness and teaching

You may not have heard of face-blindness before, but for some teachers it can make things even more challenging. With the start of the new school year comes one of the most difficult parts of my job as a teacher – learning students’ names. While many teachers struggle with this, some find it more difficult than others. Elementary teachers may only have classes of 30 students, but as a high school teacher I generally have 150 students each year.

I used to think that everyone else had trouble learning student names and I wasn’t any different. It wasn’t until a few years into teaching that I realized that I was not typical when it came to learning names. My husband would learn the names of his students by the end of the first week, while I would still be struggling in February – or even April! It took a while to figure out what was going on, but eventually I determined that my issues with learning names had a cause – I’m face-blind.

What is face-blindness?

Face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, is a neurological disorder that makes it difficult for someone to recognize faces. This doesn’t mean that faces can’t be recognized as faces – it means that faces often look similar or difficult to discriminate. The syndrome occurs on a wide spectrum – some people can’t tell the difference between unknown faces, but others can’t recognize their own family members. As you can imagine, this can make things very difficult as a teacher!

There are many causes of face-blindness. It can be caused by a stroke or TBI, but some people are born with it. Sometimes it is correlated with the autism spectrum, but for many people there is no real cause. There is nothing wrong with the eyes – it is an issue with the brain’s processing of facial images.

How did I know I was face-blind?

There really isn’t a treatment for prosopagnosia, so many people with the disorder don’t get tested by the medical establishment. There are online tests that can be taken to get an idea of how well you can distinguish faces. This is how I learned that while my husband is a “super-recognizer,” I am the opposite!

I realized that there was an issue with my recognition after a few different events. When I was pregnant with my youngest daughter 19 years ago, I was at school for the first two weeks, then out on maternity leave until the end of the quarter. I wanted to know my students’ names when I returned, so I took photos of every student before I left. I practiced by going through my decks of photos whenever I was sitting around doing nothing. But when I came back to school, I still didn’t know their names!

Another sign was that I had multiple instance where I had identical twins in my classes – but I didn’t realize it for quite some time. One year I had two brothers – one in period 1, the other in period 2. I didn’t realize that they were brothers – or identical! – until it was time to mail some things home and I saw that they had the same home address.

I took an online test to measure how well I could distinguish faces without any hair or other identifying features. It turns out that my score was very low. I did a little research and found that my experience was quite typical of those with prosopagnosia.

Dealing with face-blindness

So how does a teacher (or anyone) deal with face-blindness? Since there is no treatment, the only real was to deal with it is to work around it. While I can’t recognize facial features, I use features such as hair, facial hair, voice, clothing, glasses and piercings to help me differentiate. This helps for the most part, but it is important to know that it will not always solve the problem.

If I see a student outside of my classroom, I still may not recognize them if they have something fairly common that I use as a distinguishing feature. If I have a class with only 3 students wearing glasses, I might use the color of the frames to differentiate. But on the campus with 2800 students, there may be many students wearing the same frames!

One of the most important things I do is to be open and honest with my students. I explain to them the very first week that I am face-blind, and that it will take me months to learn their names completely. This is not to say that it’s not important to me, but that I will need to work very hard at it and I am likely to make mistakes for quite some time. I also ask them to add a photo to their class profile, or to remind me who they are when they come up to take a speaking test.

Taking attendance is rather important, so I make sure to mention that they MUST be in their assigned seats when I take attendance if they don’t want to be marked absent. Even if they are standing right in front of me at my desk, I may not realize that they are here. Of course I still make mistakes sometimes, so I tell them to be sure to just let me know if I’ve marked them absent by mistake so I can fix it.

One thing I do plan to do this year is follow some of the advice from the book Atomic Habits. I am focusing on steps 1 (make it obvious) and 3 (make it easy). I have set up my tables in the classroom with a paper on each table for students to write their names next to their class period. This makes it easy for me to go around each day and greet students by name.

I plan to choose one table each day and speak to those students – not just greeting them by name but also learn something about them that I can connect with them. Some students help me by giving me specific facts about themselves that I will remember right away! I will never forget two boys (cousins) who asked to be called Big Sexy and Little Sexy on the first day of class. I learned their real names and never had a problem with them!

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