To read this content please select one of the options below:

More than names on a roster: the many meanings behind Sgaw Karen names

Daniel Gilhooly (School of Teaching and Learning, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri, USA)
Chris Mu Htoo (Department of Criminal Justice, The University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia, USA)

Journal for Multicultural Education

ISSN: 2053-535X

Article publication date: 31 March 2022

Issue publication date: 28 April 2022




The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how teachers can use their Sgaw Karen students’ names as a means to gaining awareness of their students’ home culture, language and personal stories.


This case study uses interviews with four Karen families to explore the meanings behind the names and nicknames given to Karen individuals.


The findings of this study reveal that Karen names can provide teachers important insights into Karen culture, history and language. Moreover, Karen names can also provide important biographical information about the student.

Research limitations/implications

This study only focuses on Sgaw Karen names and does not include other Karen subgroups like the Pwo Karen, who are also resettling in the USA. This study does not include all Sgaw Karen names, but the authors have made efforts to include Karen names from various regions of Burma and of different religious backgrounds.

Practical implications

Teachers and others working with culturally and linguistically diverse students like the Karen will gain a better understanding of the various ways that names are given across cultures. While this paper focuses on one particular ethnic group, it is believed that teachers need to expand their notions about how other non-European groups name their children and how these names may reveal something about the student’s heritage culture, history, language and the unique lived experiences of their students.

Social implications

Too often teachers and others working cross-culturally do not realize that other cultures follow different naming practices than those used in the USA. Teachers often mispronounce or misunderstand students’ names when the student comes from a cultural group unfamiliar to them. This paper helps a general audience better realize the unique approach Karen culture takes to naming children and how these names are often transformed to fit American naming conventions. As the title suggests, Karen students often feel embarrassed and take on a negative opinion of their given name as a result of a lack of awareness by teachers and others.


This paper provides a unique perspective in the literature on the ways cultural naming conventions can serve teachers aspiring to incorporate biography-driven instruction into their classroom practices.



The authors would like to thank all the participants for sharing their names and the stories behind them.


Gilhooly, D. and Htoo, C.M. (2022), "More than names on a roster: the many meanings behind Sgaw Karen names", Journal for Multicultural Education, Vol. 16 No. 2, pp. 195-206.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2022, Emerald Publishing Limited

Related articles