Professional Learning

Educational Change Starts with Listening

Taking the first step to speak up can make a big difference

April 6, 2011

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?

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