Sunday, August 14, 2016

Resolve To Listen

For the next couple of weeks, as the beginning of my school year approaches. I'm going to write to renew my resolve to keep focus in my practice. This is one of that series of posts.

It is easy to stop listening.

Oh, it's easy to act like you're listening, to look like you're listening. People take management classes on how to fake listening (not that it's described in those terms), to pretend to listen as a way to get "buy-in," to get people to imagine that they had something to do with what ultimately happened.

And it's easy to slip into the habit of just letting others' words wash over you as you wait for the chance to say what you want to say. It's really easy to do that in a classroom if you actually have a plan for what you intend to say today. You can actually become impatient with students who are still talking while you are anxious watching the clock and thinking about the Three Important Aspects of American Critical Realism that you planned to talk about before that bell rings in just seven minutes and forty-seven seconds and dammit, Pat, just stop talking so I can start talking!

And there's more to listening than just the pedagogical and instructional parts. There are the interruptions, the times between class, the moments that seem off the wall. They can seem random, annoying, disruptive, and yet they mostly are encrypted versions of messages that students are either unwilling or unable to deliver more directly. I can slap a student down and silence them (or at least try to). I can give the words a shallow listen and hear nothing but a challenge to my own authority in the classroom.

Or I can strive to really listen, to really hear whatever message is buried in the artless, graceless, or combative words that student flings in my face.

Here's what I believe about all humans, of all ages--

People want to be heard. They generally want to be heard when they speak, but if they don't believe they are being heard, they will keep raising their voice until they are heard. If someone is screaming at you, the most likely explanation is that they believe you have not heard them.

It is cliche and often reduced to the kind of stupid training that human resources departments love it, but actually listening to people is hugely powerful. I cannot tell you how many difficult and challenging moments I have seen defused and defanged by someone who simply listened.

Listening doesn't have to be agreement. Particularly in a school, we will encounter parents and students (and other teachers and even administrators) who just want to know that you get what they're saying-- even if you ultimately decide to keep your own council. There are people who constantly make life extra hard for themselves because they believe that to acknowledge what another person says requires you to agree with that person, and so they refuse to give up an inch of ground, to ever even admit that they understand what the other person is saying. That's a mistake.

People want to be heard. Young people, who often find themselves in a world where they are powerless and small, especially want to be heard. This can take time and it can't be planned for (see previous resolution) but it is absolutely essential. If you want a practical reason, then remember that when a student believes you've really heard them, that student will be far more cooperative and open in the future. A sacrifice of ten minutes of listening now can save you literally hours of positive instruction in the rest of the year. If you want a professional reason-- well, this is what students will remember. When you hear people talk about That Teacher Who Made a Difference, the critical element of the story often boils down to, "That teacher actually heard me. That teacher actually listened."

Listening takes nerve. Listening without judgment or condemnation or correction or interruption requires nerves of steel. And I'm an English teacher, which means I am "listening" every time I collect a writing assignment and read it. But if I can listen, and thereby provide a safe space in which a student can really say what he really wants to say, then I've established a place that is open and honest and safe, and there is no better space in which to really teach.

Listening, ultimately, means giving up control, letting another voice be central, be the lead. For those of us in the teaching biz, those of us who are often inclined to believe that our success depends on our control of our classroom, true listening can be a huge challenge, a monumental risk. But it is a risk that can pay huge rewards for our students. It's a risk-- and a responsibility-- we have to embrace.


  1. Such a simple and important reminder! Human beings dealing with human beings.

  2. Listening requires humility. Humility takes effort. It is possible to be humble and still be a strong leader, which is also needed in the classroom. Fear of losing time, fear of losing the goal, fear of losing students' attention, fear of students not "staying with you", these fears often dictate our behavior as teachers. When everyone in the room has his and her own agenda, it is certain that not much will be accomplished. Tuning into students so they can tune into you happens by listening and as you said later, seeing them. Otherwise, we are subjecting people to an assembly line experience and they will respond accordingly.