“I can see this is taking a serious toll on you.” These 11 words recently plunged me into a cathartic cry in the middle of a doctor’s office. For the past two years, I’ve struggled with my health. As time passed, my experiences with doctors who told me it was all in my head made me feel like a faceless nobody, truly unseen and unheard. When Dr. Adelson said those 11 words, however, relief flooded me like a roaring tsunami. When he entered the room, Dr. Adelson had set a speaker down on the computer desk, looked into my eyes, and said, “This is a speaker. In another room I have a stenographer who will be taking notes. This is so I can give you my undivided attention,” and that’s exactly what he did.
At the end of the appointment, I felt lighter than I had in years. I knew I was heard, seen, and valued simply because I was given space to fully tell my story.
What I experienced is what experts call “radical listening,” a concept introduced by McGill University scholar Joe Kincheloe and recently defined by Ralina Joseph, professor of communication at the University of Washington, as “listening without judgment, keeping silent and giving your full attention so that the speaker will continue sharing.” Joseph goes on to say that radical listening “means quieting your brain and resisting the instinct to respond with your own thoughts.”
After my experience with Dr. Adelson, I’m convinced that this kind of listening might just help dispel the deep black cloud of despair that educators all over the world are experiencing for a myriad of reasons.
Many administrators are trying to help the teachers they lead. They speak to them about self-care, volunteer to take over classes, purchase lunches for faculty, and give away prizes, all to try to boost morale. To those wonderful administrators, let me suggest how to emulate what my doctor accomplished for me: Radically listen to what teachers say about how they feel and, more important, how they define what they need to feel better.
Four Ways to Radically Listen
An open-ended survey: When pressed for time, an open-ended survey offers teachers a chance to speak their truths and tell their stories. It’s a powerful way to begin to establish the satisfactory feelings that are associated with radical listening. A Google Form is an easy tool for this. This digital tool gives leaders many ways to digitally listen. A survey can quickly take the pulse of a department or entire faculty, using the Likert scale function. Alternatively, gather more detailed data by using the paragraph function.
Depending on the level of trust in your district, these surveys can be anonymous or not. Either way, surveys begin the process of sending the message that administrators value the adults they lead.
In-depth interviews: An even more profound method for radically listening is to conduct in-depth interviews. These meaningful conversations allow leaders to deeply understand the personal experiences, feelings, and thoughts of their stakeholders in a one-to-one setting. The interviews can be in person or virtual and can highlight the voices of those who aren’t comfortable expressing themselves in a group setting.
What’s more, face-to-face interviews give leaders an opportunity to express the sincerity of radical listening, as I experienced with Dr. Adelson. Making eye contact, leaning in, and repeating back what was said assures stakeholders of true intentions and a willingness to listen without judgment or bias.
Focus group: This is another method of listening that can stand on its own or be an outcome of the two methods above. Focus groups allow leaders to gather pinpointed data by listening to teachers within a specific specialty or grade level in order to have a rounded understanding of the insights of the collective group. Carefully craft questions to facilitate a conversation that not only will allow for the kind of sharing that will help the administrator to get valuable information but, more important, will ensure that all members of the group feel heard. Questions should be open-ended so that they elicit more detailed responses.
In case the responses are short, have potential follow-up questions at the ready. For both the in-depth interviews and focus groups, it’s important to establish talking points that will allow participants to understand why they’re there, how the feedback will be used, and other norms, like whether responses will be kept anonymous.
Digital bulletin boards: Like the suggestion boxes of another era, digital bulletin boards offer another way to listen (albeit not as in-depth or personal as the other methods). Providing a digital bulletin board, however, is especially effective after doing one or more of the above methods, as this indicates that listening radically isn’t just a one and done moment. Set up digital bulletin boards as a space where teachers can go to respectfully log issues, concerns, and, hopefully, solutions to problems they’ve encountered. Using a site like Padlet is an easy way to set up one of these. Their template can organize the listening in topics, subject matter, types of issues, etc.
Dr. Adelson ended my appointment by saying, “Now that we have a plan, we’ll take it one step at a time together.” These words led me to a last piece of essential information: Radical listening doesn’t mean inaction. In fact, it’s imperative that after leaders listen to teachers, they need to do something, and what’s more, that something must be in concert with the desires of the teachers who were vulnerable enough to share. The action ultimately is the proof that they were heard.
Radical listening is a gift we can give our hurting teachers to start a much-needed dialogue and future plan of action, hopefully to begin to heal what ails our profession.