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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Margaret Wheatley, a brilliant thinker and organizer, writes: "I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again: simple, honest, human conversation, and not mediation, negotiation, problem solving, debate, or public meetings. Truthful conversation where we each have a chance to speak, we each feel heard, and we each listen well."

Wheatley's book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, is essential to my work; I rarely recommend books, but this is one that everyone should have on their shelves. Wheatley's prose pulls me into places of the mind, heart, and spirit that most education-related texts never venture. And more than anything, she offers tremendous hope. (Her 2009 book, Perseverance, is another gem; I carry it with me every day.)

Listening to each other is not that easy, I'm sure we all know. Wheatley acknowledges that it takes courage to have conversations with each other, conversations when we're really listening without judgment, listening with curiosity; and conversations take time, of which we're always in short supply.

But Wheatley writes, "If we don't start talking to one another, nothing will change. Conversation is the way we discover how to transform our world, together." Her book is full of examples of people who have begun conversations with each other and changed the world. It also offers practical advice on how to begin the process, conversation prompts, and much more.

Several teachers approached me last week. They'd read my recent blog post on the ethics of posting student data and appreciated that I'd voiced an objection. "I feel like I can't say what you do," said Ms. W. "Our school prides itself on our test scores. I have to post the data. I'm afraid of what would happen if I objected."

"Have you ever spoken with your principal about your concerns?" I asked. I know the principal; I know that she has reservations about this practice.

"I don't think she'd listen," said Ms. W. "I don't know what I'd say." Ms. W (who is African American) then spoke for ten minutes about her experience growing up in the 1980s, in a predominantly white community where students' grades and test scores were virtually known by all. Although she was academically successful, her two younger brothers were not. By mid-elementary school the boys' self-esteem was destroyed, they rejected tutors, and they struggled in many ways, for many years. "It kills me," said Ms. W, "to see these posters with test score data displayed publically, to see the bottom band (the lowest performing) full of the names of black boys. It's eating me away."

"Talk to your principal," I urged. "Share your experiences, share your feelings. I know it's scary, but this is what it means to be a leader, to speak up for those boys."

We spent some time that afternoon planning a conversation. Ms. W talked through her ideas for engaging her principal in this dialogue; she also brainstormed non-judgmental questions to ask her principal in order to understand her thinking more. It all begins with conversations, I thought as I left Ms. W's room.

"Change doesn't happen from a leader announcing the plan," writes Margaret Wheatley. "Change begins from deep inside a system, when a few people notice something they will no longer tolerate, or respond to a dream of what's possible. We just have to find a few others who care about the same thing. Together we will figure out what our first step is, then the next, then the next. Gradually, we become large and powerful. We don't have to start with power, only with passion."

What kind of changes in education would you like to see? Who would you like to engage in conversation with about change?

Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle Lawrence-Bailey's picture

Thank you for posting this Elana! Not many teachers understand the importance of listening. They do not understand the power of words or the impact of criticizing another person's comments. Everyone has a different upbringing and personality. That is very important to remember when communicating. Dialogue would be so much more productive if the process was listen, praise, and then offer your opinion.

yvonne sylva's picture

Elena, I thought your post was so insightful. I truly believe that we as teachers need to LISTEN. We need to listen to our students, parents, and colleagues. I know when talking to students I do not truly listen, I realized that I have my prejudgements when having conversations with my students. Your post made me realize that I need to take a step back and really listen to their words. It would make me a better teacher and more effective. I agree that if we listen we can make a change. Thank you for this post.

Rachel Truelsen's picture

I agree that listening is something that is important in todays edcuation and regardless of all the technologies available today, sometimes knowing that someone does care about what you have to say and acknoweldges that you have spoken means a lot to people, young and old. I have had students come up to me and say "it means a lot to me when I talk you stop what you are doing and listen to what I have to say". I want to be listened to on a daily basis, I think that students and people that you work with deserve the same.

Candis's picture

Elena,I totally agree with you because in order to achieve academic excellence we must work together as teachers to educate our students. I am very excited about communicating and sharing new ideas with my fellow colleagues to enhance our children's educational growth. This is a great opportunity for teachers and students everywhere.

jwright's picture
foreign lanugage teacher, NEw York

I think communication is such a vital part of teaching and often it goes underappreciated in our school systems. When educators are given the time to "talk" to one another great things can come from it. We can gain so much knowledge from one another, we just have to be open for the communication process. I think this can be the hardest part, learning to listen again to other professionals instead of just being told what or how to do things and not just being the "teacher" but to have an opinion and voice that others can questions professionally.

Jessica Ash's picture

This article has made me think about the way in which my particular school communicates. We are given fleeting moments in which to discuss items, but I know that we are not truly listening to each other because nothing is changing. It is so true, so many teachers have been teaching in isolation for so long, they are out of practice when it comes to listening to what their colleagues have to say. Thank you for sharing this information. I need to re-evaluate my own listening skills.

Nicholas Nohner's picture

The environment built around schools is so high stakes today. Parents, teachers, administrators and the greater community all care so adamantly about the course of education that the rhetoric involved can become heated so quickly. I think when we are talking about someone's child it is easier to take the tradition conservative route because it is easier to defend. It takes more courage to do whats right. The real trick is not convincing ourselves we are the chief authority and actually begin listening to each stakeholder. Granted, teachers get blasted by to many emotional based arguments not grounded in facts, but that doesn't mean we can discount everyone's opinion which is not our own. I believe you are right in saying open discourse is the only way forward.

Daphine Tilley's picture

Communication is key in any relationship, whether it be personal or professional. I work at a school in which the administration provides little to no support to the teachers or students. I had a courageous conversation with the principal to express our need for support and resources. I think that the principal actually listened because she is working harder to help teachers with supplies. This is a great beginning. I, too, believe that the art of listening to one another is lost among all that we do. I will invest in the book, Turning to One Another. It seems to provide insight on starting meaningful conversations to jump-start social change. Thanks for your thought-provoking blog.

Greg White's picture

Grateful. Early in the morning and I am ready for the day. Your words opened my heart as the sun rose. Necessary, just as necessary as food. Today I will listen to my students, their parents, my colleagues. Perhaps a day of silence? Maybe that would not work, but I could talk less. I recognize that I talk a lot. It comes from anxiety. Insecurity. But I am also committed to changing our world and perhaps to do so I need to talk less. I felt my heart soften as I read your words, I recognized the truth in my soul. It is time. I am going to buy this book. Please consider writing more on this subject. I look forward to it.

M. Hernandez's picture

Dear Ms. Aguilar,
I read a great many blogs for my work, but rarely am I inspired to comment. I would like to appreciate you for your writing and for making me think about my role in a different way. As the principal of a large urban high school, I recognize that I rarely stop and listen. It always feels as if I just do not have the time; there is always something more urgent. Today I had three very meaningful conversations with staff members. I listened and spoke very little. They did not take that long and the poeple I spoke with felt very touched. I know how important it is to do this, but I forget. Your blog made me remember.
I would like to ask for advice. In my school we desperately need to have some conversation about race and class issues. I don't know how to go about this or what resources there are. I am also uncomfortable doing this. And I also know that it has to happen. I am ashamed to admit to my colleagues that I can't lead this. It is something I have avoided for years. But I know that these are the conversations that needs to happen. Do you have any suggestions?

Thank you for your writing. I rarely feel as inspired and motivated to take action from what I read in blogs. Please continue to share these ideas.

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