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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

Holly's picture
Third grade teacher

It is imparative that in order to improve the quality of education, we, as educators, must learn to listen. I agree that is sometimes difficult not to develop preconcieved notions and opinions, but engaging in meaningful conversation with an open mind is the only time true change can take place. We all have something of value to share and if we are working to ensure our students have every opportunity to learn, we must learn to open a dialogue with our peers.

Kolleen Klann's picture

I have just recently begun my first graduate course toward my first Master's degree in teaching. I am also a first year teacher. I have a lot of growth ahead of me, so I am constantly looking to build my professional learning experiences. I am blessed to work in a school that has Professional Learning Community time built into our schedule. We are the only school in our district to do this currently, and any time that I talk to teachers from those schools, they comment on how they wish they had this time as well. Although our PLC is a wonderful structure to have, there is still room for growth as far as how we maximize the time that we do have. Your blog post is of interest to me, because it highlights the research behind the logic and effectiveness of PLCs and it gives me something I can bring to our next meeting. Thank you for your post!

Kristy Tallon's picture

As a beginning student in a master's program I am realizing the power of communication and being a part of a community of dedicated teachers. I think that by re-learning the art of true communication we can all see improvements within ourselves but also within our students. Through this blog I also realize the importance of being a good listener. This should be an obvious component to communication but it is the easiest aspect to forget.

Cassandra Stephani's picture

I agree that listening is an important part of success. As I read your comments it reminded me of the importance of listening to not only our colleagues, but also to our students and their parents. We must think of our students' parents as our allies.

It is easy to become so focused on our teaching that we forget to talk with and listen to students families.

Thanks for your great insight and suggestions regarding listening.


David B. Cohen's picture
David B. Cohen
English teacher; NBCT; writer; consultant

Thank you for this post, Elena. We need more such affirmations and constant encouragement.

Here in California, Elena and I are part of a group called Accomplished California Teachers, and we are always looking for leaderhip-oriented peers here in the Golden State. ACT has two goals - to inject more teacher voice and expertise into the policy arena, and to provide support and resources for our members in their efforts to be effective teacher leaders at any level. I hope Elena's words persuade more California teachers to speak up and get more involved.
For more information: http://acteachers.org

Reynaldo Aguirre's picture

Thank you, Elena, for this thoughtful, poignant article! It was so moving and led me to read many of your previous articles on this site. This is a very hard time for principals and your words inspired me. Tomorrow I will begin some conversations with some of my teachers, mostly in order to listen to them. I also just ordered the two books you mention. This made my day and rejuvenated me. I look forward to reading more of your pieces.

Nicole Franklin's picture

As I finished up my bachelor's degree this past December, I have really learned the importance of a community within a school district, families and etc. It can have a significant impact on student learning, and that listening is vital. I remember during one of my education classes my teacher always made us do a listening activity almost once a week, we practiced listening and then had to restate or summarize what was said to us. I think being active listeners is key to making our students successful in the classroom!

Jean Fuller's picture

This is so true. Thank you for this wonderful blog posting. Listening is one of the hardest aspects of being an effective teacher.

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