Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Listening to students
Shane Safir recently wrote an article for Edutopia on "Becoming a Listening Educator." In it, she outlines "four traits of the listening educator." 

I have always believed that it is crucial for every student to have "a person" at school whom they feel they can go to with whatever they need. On my small campus, we teachers talk a lot about who they feel sees us as that "person" so we can make sure no one is left out. Sometimes, there are kids nobody really likes (terrible, but true) and those are usually the kids who need a "person" the most.

So how can I be that person? With some kids, it's easy. We click. We like the same TV show or music. We have some connection. With others, it feels darn-near impossible. It is for those kids, we need to practice the traits Safir discusses. First and foremost, we need to ask questions.

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What did you have for dinner last night?
  • Have you ever __________?
  • Did you hear about (recent news story)? What did you think about that?
These types of basic, simple questions help us build relationships and open the door for kids to talk about deeper things. When kids are talking, we need to stop and listen. 

Seriously. Stop. Stop looking at your computer. Stop passing out the mindset. Just stop. Look at the kid talking and listen.

I teach these kinds of listening social skills to kids who really need to learn them and it has made me realize that teachers can be terrible models of good listening skills. But we can fix that. We can slow down. We can stop.

Safir asked me in a comment on Edutopia, "What has to "give" so that we can listen to and grow to know every child? How can we release ourselves from the tyranny of tasks to simply show up and listen to students, parents, and colleagues alike?"

I have been wrestling with this question and I think this is the answer:

Recently, I had a student become visibly frustrated when I asked him to make some changes on a formative assessment he'd taken. I asked him what was frustrating him. He bravely, calmly, maturely asked if he could talk to me about it after class. Instead of pushing it and forcing him to fix his errors right this minute, I respected his wishes and waited. 

After class, he, a student who rarely speaks up, unleashed the details of some big family issues. With tears rolling down his nearly-grown-up face, he told me that it felt "so good to just talk about it" because he "hasn't felt like he could talk to anybody." 

This wasn't the kind of thing that needed to be reported to CPS or administration. It was the kind of thing that just feels huge when you're 14. He just needed a person to listen.

I now feel confident that I could get this kid to do any massive amount of challenging work because he knows I am here for him. He knows I believe in him. He knows I will listen. 

So, that's how I convince myself that it is worth my time to listen. This kid will work. He will not blow things off. I won't need to spend whole class periods nagging him to do his work. 

Now, I live in the real world. I know that just because I've connected doesn't mean he will always stay on task, but it sure helps a whole lot. Trust me. 

This is a cultural shift but it's we teachers that need convincing. Investing time in kids is more valuable than investing time in curriculum or planning or grading or whatever other tasks we have to do. It saves time in the long run. And afterall, it is the whole point to what we do, isn't it? 

What do you think? Are there other ways we could make time to listen?


  1. Meaghan, what a lovely piece. Your story brought tears to my eyes. It is amazing, the transformational power of listening. Keep writing and keep sharing! Shane

  2. Thank you so much, Shane! Same to you. See you tonight on #caedchat on Twitter.