For teachers, this has become a year of “windows”.
We’ve spoken to our students through the window of a computer screen, whether through pre-recorded lessons or live classes. The screen recorder counts down and then we’re going through the details of the instruction, or watching the squares as they fill with children’s faces as more students join the lesson. Classroom management has become knowing where the mute button is at a moment’s notice.
Or, a teacher stands in front of her students in class, but students are isolated, separated from the teacher and each other rather than seated together. And in many cases, every student has a tri-fold divider on the desk surrounding them, each side featuring a large clear plastic pane to help keep the virus at bay.
Newton’s third law is: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. And this is taking place as we teach in a pandemic.
Nearly every action that we’re taken to avoid the spread of the virus deals in bodily separation and distance, as well as covering up ones’ face. Research says this distance affects our students’ academics, but we also know they are likely dealing with emotional trauma.
Anxiety, depression, and even abuse are on the rise, and no wonder. Although it’s certainly prudent and necessary to take this kind of action in a pandemic, humans simply weren’t made to be separated. Kids are especially vulnerable.
So what can a teacher do to help their students? What can be said to soothe their pain? Perhaps the best way to touch their hearts isn’t in speaking at all.
The key is in listening.
In this article, we’ll explore an often overlooked component of healthy living: listening. We’ll discuss ways that we can start using tools to help our students immediately.
Listening Is Hard
Forget the adage about having two ears and one mouth. Our mouth is front and center, and we treat it that way.
Being a good listener is a special skill. As teachers we’re paid to speak and to use our “teacher voice”. If they get the message we’re sending, we feel the day is a success. That’s why switching gears and listening can be so hard for us.
In the December 2001 issue of Shambhala Sun magazine, Margaret Wheatley wrote,
“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen. If we can do that, we create moments in which real healing is available. Whatever life we have experienced, if we can tell our story to someone who listens, we find it easier to deal with our circumstances.”
Her piece was written just after 9/11 and is worthy of a closer look: https://margaretwheatley.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Listening-as-Healing.pdf
Her insight on being “present” to listen reminds us of how hard it is for teachers to genuinely listen. We’re always trying to get through all of the lessons we’ve planned and get ready for the next thing. We’re constantly moving.
So to be willing to just “sit there and listen” sounds almost impossible. There’s no time!
There’s no time unless we see listening for what it is: an investment.
It can’t be measured with assessments or tests, but we’re investing in those we let speak to us.
Let’s be brutally honest: while we love them, younger children can be especially difficult to listen to. They haven’t yet mastered the ability to “cut to the chase”. A spoken account that might take an adult three minutes can take them about ten to get through.
As for older students, it’s normally the opposite. The challenges tend to lie in getting them to share at all and in building a relationship of trust so that they feel comfortable enough to communicate their struggles.
Granted, some older students have the same issue in that they are unable to speak briefly and concisely, and on occasion a young child will just refuse to speak at all.
So as teachers, having good listening ears requires being intentional. We have to set it in our minds that we will listen to our students.We will make ourselves available to hear, or do the things necessary to open up and extend that line of communication.
An investment of time must be made.
In the above-mentioned article, Wheatley writes, “Why is being heard so healing? I don't know the full answer to that question, but I do know it has something to do with the fact that listening creates relationship. We know from science that nothing in the universe exists as an isolated or independent entity. Everything takes form from relationships, be it subatomic particles sharing energy or ecosystems sharing food. In the web of life, nothing living lives alone.”
The reality is that right now, as the pandemic rages on, we simply can’t go back to the normalcy we knew as recently as the beginning of the year. We can’t stop social distancing, meeting virtually, etc. There will be physical distance.
But a way to help soothe the effects of this is active listening which creates a wholeness. It connects us together.
Listening won’t make everything right, but it can make things more right in a student’s world.
Listening Creates Listeners
As teachers, it can be difficult to remember how much we’re teaching by example. As our craft is verbal, we focus on what we can convey to our students about classroom expectations through spoken and printed rules and procedures. But, we’re creating an atmosphere through our actions.
We’re helping to create a classroom of listeners when we listen.
Listening Creates Scholars
The benefits of teaching students how to listen well goes beyond the skill of listening; it makes them better students. Waterford.org published an insightful article on the academic benefits of listening (https://www.waterford.org/education/active-listening-in-the-classroom/) which opens with a bombshell:
“Here’s a fast fact: over 60% of all misunderstandings come from poor listening and only 1% from poor reading.”
This article lists numerous benefits of listening:
- improved self-efficacy (one’s belief they can succeed)
- It creates mindful thinking
- it lowers levels of frustration, anxiety, and depression
- improves relationship skills
- it improves second-language acquisition
Listening Opens Communication
In Together magazine , Jason Miller writes, “If children experience early on that their thoughts, feelings, and opinions have value, they are more likely to continue to share these well into their teenage years.”
This is true not just in later years, but later in the school year.
How much more will students feel encouraged to share with us their stresses and struggles, which is the healing process, when they know they are valued and respected?
As mentioned before, having older students share can be a challenge. Nicholas Provenzano shared about a key time slot in the school day, the first five minutes, which he allows for simple conversation before getting into the lesson. This could be a perfect time for the teacher to show the class that they’re there for them, to listen.
Every School Day Can Include a Listening Session
So how to begin?
The best way to start is to incorporate at least one “listening session” into every day of school (remember: kids feel valued not just when their teacher is listening, but also when their classmates listen. Listening is a job for the whole class).
We should also consider the students who may not feel comfortable sharing with the whole class. Setting aside a block of time at the end of the day would be helpful for them, and a sign-up list could be created, to conference with them in the same way we’d help with their academics.
For in-person learning, besides the idea of starting with five minutes of conversation, this may be a set aside time to share for 15 minutes that may include discussion prompts like “What I did last weekend”, “What I would of if I was president”, What kind of pet I would love to have and why”, and “The funniest thing I’ve ever seen in real life”.
Or, if the schedule doesn’t permit a time for discussion, it can be woven into the normal proceedings of the day.
During the writing block, students could be encouraged to share experiences before or after writing to serve as writing prompts. Or the writing itself could be encouraged to be a form of expression, the students knowing that their words will be read and their voice heard.
In virtual teaching, a short section of time could be set aside for sharing in class meetings online, stuck in the middle of the day to allow for class listening as well as breaking up the routine.
Before starting, it’s worth it to remember that your students may not know how to actively listen, and it should be modeled and taught. For the teacher, active listening involves:
- Showing that the speaker has your full attention, and being fully present
- Summarizing the main point(s) of the message the speaker shares to affirm you are understanding their meaning
- Deferring judgment
- Displaying empathy
- Sharing similar experiences
For the students listening, however, the appropriate guideline is for them to practice the most crucial ones: Showing that the speaker has your undivided attention, and deferring judgement.
This pandemic, thankfully, will end one day. That’s settled. But what isn’t settled is how healthy our students make it out on the other side.
School is supposed to be a place where young people grow academically, but also socially and emotionally, as well. This year, with the varying degrees of isolation, requires an emphasis on our listening ability for their overall health.
We can’t open the windows just yet this year, but we can certainly learn to communicate despite them.