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Becoming a Listening Educator

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
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On the fourth day of his ninth-grade year, my student James unraveled. Our advisory class was deep into a week of community-building activities when another student said something that triggered him, and James erupted, "I can't be here any more! This is stupid!" His chest heaved with shallow breaths as he knocked over a chair and then stormed out. My colleague Lance and I faced a room full of wide-eyed 14-year-olds.

At lunchtime, we sat with James who by now had calmed down and looked more sullen than angry. As we listened, he shared that he had been in and out of group homes for ten years. His latest home was stable but emotionally sterile -- it felt like he checked into a hotel each day. "I haven't had a real family in years," James whispered, his eyes downcast. "For me, school is my family, and you guys are more than just my teachers." For the next few years, Lance and I watched out for James, supporting one another to be something in between "parent" and "teacher."

Looking back, I realize that James offered us an incredible gift that day: the opportunity to listen. I now see listening as the hallmark of the transformational educator.

Four Traits of the Listening Educator

Listening educators cultivate these simple powerful approaches.

1. The Willingness to Slow Down

The listening educator feels the urgency of change, but embraces the slower pace of listening. As a principal, I learned this lesson the hard way when a parent stopped me in the halls one day and said, "You always look so busy. You're marching through the halls getting things done, and I feel like you hardly see me when I walk by." What a wake-up call! From that moment on, I made a concerted effort to slow my stride, notice when a community member approached me, and set aside my current agenda to practice listening.

2. Genuine Curiosity

People and their stories fascinate the listening educator. Each interaction offers a riveting window into another human being's perspective and experience. To cultivate curiosity, develop a toolkit of authentic, open-ended questions. Here are a few that I ask often:

  • What are your hopes and dreams (for yourself, your child, our school)?
  • What one or two core values drive you to do what you do every day?
  • What change would you like to see in our community, and what can you do to promote that change?

As you ask these probing questions and slow down to be fully present for the response, you build new muscle as a listener.

3. Attention to Non-Verbal Cues

The listening educator pays close attention to non-verbal communication. My friend Rachel worried when her bright, quiet son Gabriel entered kindergarten last year. She imagined that he would fade into the background and be invisible to his teacher, but instead he landed under the wing of a listening educator who studied his subtle cues. One day, the teacher noticed that Gabe's face had fallen and took him aside to find out what was wrong. Talking with Rachel, the teacher shared, "Yesterday, I noticed a change in Gabe's facial expression and discovered that he was worried the other kids could see a prize he had hidden for our class treasure hunt. Once we spoke, he felt better and came back to the lesson." Rachel was deeply moved by the teacher's ability to "listen" to her son's facial expression in the middle of a bustling kindergarten class.

4. Self-Awareness and Empathy

The listening educator cultivates self-awareness and empathy for others, especially in the face of challenging behavior. In moments of distress, we learn to ask ourselves, "What is coming up for me right now? Why am I being triggered by this behavior or person?" Empathy then offers a bridge to the other person's humanity, challenging us to stay present even when we want to run in the opposite direction. This requires courage, deep breaths, and a willingness to lean on our colleagues. Healthy adult communities adopt routines to facilitate peer support and build resilience. My later posts in this series will dig into such routines.

The Listening Educator and the Common Core

With the shift to the Common Core, educators can now choose to adopt a new mindset rooted in listening. Learning to listen well -- to our students, parents, colleagues, and communities -- will help us to build deeper relationships and to personalize support for every child.

Listening educators see the human experience as a complex text with listening as a form of close reading. They understand that every great lesson plan, parent conference, and teacher collaboration starts with a simple yet underutilized skill: listening. This is brave work that may not be rewarded in your evaluation, but it will exponentially increase your impact and set you apart as an educator.

Rewards for Listening

James graduated from June Jordan School for Equity in 2007. In his four years with us, he created a "home" filled with peers and educators who loved him -- people who saw him and really listened. I see James pop up on my Facebook screen from time to time, and I'm deeply thankful for what he taught me.

How do you listen to students, colleagues, and families? What does it mean to you to become a listening educator? Which of the four traits mentioned above do you struggle with, and which do you want to cultivate?

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The Listening Educator
Essential tools for developing a high-stakes skill in an environment of diversity.

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Catrina Jacobs's picture
Catrina Jacobs
Elementary Teacher in Phoenix, Arizona

This is definitely a key to reaching our kids. The struggle though doesn't seem that the care and curiosity isn't there. It's how to find time for each student to unlock these stories and treasures inside. Even spending my lunch time with kids, conversations within transitions, and catch up while working one on one is not what is needed. I do agree that it's the relationships that will be the building block for learning and growing. But it is definitely a battle to find time. Journaling to their caring adults seems to be one solution that teachers at my school have tried. Though it doesn't provide that personal one on one connection, they have an outlet; they have stability and care. I appreciate your post!

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Yes, Catrina, time is a big challenge and using journaling as a listening tool is a brilliant approach. You make me wonder, how do we begin to organize our schools and classrooms for this type of deep listening? And even when time feels elusive, how can we bring a listening stance to the briefest of interactions? Thanks for your comment!

Mdpanzarella's picture

Many times as educators we do not take the time to slow down and listen to the ideas and needs of our students. We are to focused on our lesson, or focused on preparing for some sort of standarized test. As educators we would better meet the needs of our students and we would learn more from us if we took the time to understand their needs. I really found your thoughs on non verbal cues insightful. Many students do not or can not express their ideas, thoughts or concerns verbally, but by paying close attention to a students body language a teacher can get real insight into if a student has a problem, concern or issue inside your classroom or simply doen't understand what should be doing or learning.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Thanks for your comment, Mdpanzarella. I like how you've framed non-verbal "listening" as a way to get real insight on a student. A wonderful extension of the ideas in the piece!

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

I look forward to reading it Meaghan!

modestaenriquez's picture

we are given two ears and one tongue which is a hint that we should listen more than we talk...yes we need to listen to our pupils.if possible they should always do the talking...even a fool we thought he/she is...he/she has also a story to tell!
nice traits of a listening educator...thanks

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

A teacher's involvement in a student's life is a great encouragement for the pupil to succeed through life and school. Listening to students talk about learning can help them become more active partners in their own education, more engaged in the classroom, and better positioned to succeed. We need to ask students such questions as these: "What enables you to learn?" "What is important for you in learning?" "What good learning experiences have you had?" As a teacher, I loved watching my students learn and grow in so many ways. But one thing they know instinctively is how to spot the real deal. Providing students with effective teaching is an important way that schools can help ensure their success.

Ann Weiss's picture

Even if you do nothing more than eat lunch sitting beside a different child each day...or ask him/her to eat lunch with you in the will be surprised at what you will learn! Listen! Dr. Ann Weiss

Jill E. Thomas's picture

The Willingness to Slow Down part is one of the things I most appreciate about you as a coach. I don't know anyone who does this as well as you do and it always makes me feel like there is time for the full experience. To read that this was something you had to learn to do is really encouraging because it means I can learn to do it too. Always looking up to you, Shane :)


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