George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Two girls and three boys standing together smiling

The act of listening is perhaps the most underrated skill there is in education. As teachers, we are often asked to "do" a lot more than necessary: memorize standards, plan lessons, prepare for various assessments, call homes, provide a warm environment for our students (and visitors), attend faculty meetings with varying effectiveness and relevance, grade mounds of papers, and take what little time we have left to eat and sleep, usually less than we should.

Yet, with the laundry list of things that teachers do, check for, and assess, we might be better off staying still and letting students tell us more about what they need.

This is especially crucial in situations where we may or may not share similar backgrounds with the students we teach. We've known for decades that building relationships is a central part of our work, but this has even larger implications when we work with disadvantaged students. The teacher-student relationship has so many subtle nuances across race, gender, and class lines that opening our eyes to these nuances would make us better educators. Time and again, we see a growing number of educators willing to forgo the need to jump directly into teaching, educators who are more into getting to know the students.

After all, we shouldn't be preparing to teach content or the students we imagine might be there, but rather the students in front of us.

We can do this by taking up some of the skills we wish to impart on our own students. In our classrooms, however, that's not enough. For excellence, we may need to switch the way we talk to and about students. Here are some workable strategies that I've used and observed.

Build Relationships, But as a Teacher First

Everyone has a different approach to classroom management. Some don't smile until December, if ever. Others can't help but smile and laugh throughout the year. Some impart their wisdom with diatribes and speeches, while others know how to quietly move about the room and make their presence felt. The common thread in all of those cases is students understanding that the teacher cares and has a specific way of showing that he or she cares. A few teachers have said, "The student might not be able to read, but they can read you." That's powerful in the context of schools where teachers don't have the same cultural background as the students. When teachers have a passion for the students in front of them, and not just for the subject they're teaching, everyone wins.

This also means, simultaneously, that teachers shouldn't seek to create friendships in the normal sense. Many of my students would shake their heads at other teachers who tried to create friendships with them, saying they wanted a teacher, not another friend. While this might seem counterintuitive to progressive education (whatever that means), we must recognize that many students find comfort in having someone who provides stability and structure. Speaking of which. . .

Create a Fair and Equitable Environment

Currently, we've seen a surge of research that shows how real the school-to-prison pipeline has gotten. Black girls, for instance, face suspension at three times the rate of white girls, and black boys face suspension at six times the rate of white boys in NYC and Boston schools. With harsher systemic punishment doled out in our most vulnerable places, we need to recognize that classrooms are often the first place where students see inequity, and it's usually not in the resources but in their treatment. We can create rules with students and believe in restorative justice, but until we reflect on the ways that we interact with students in their weakest moments, we will continue to perpetuate inequity.

For instance, when a student comes in late, do we first ask why they're late or do we yell and banter about their lateness? Do we address individual students' weaknesses in front of the entire class or seek to have private conversations first? Do we try to build a community of learners or do we harshly deny student agency? There are ways to be strict without being inhumane, but too often, some of us think quiet is the ultimate goal by any means necessary. Instead, we should strive to understand the students individually and develop a common sense of purpose for them collectively.

Ask Questions as a Form of Disarming

Too often, we come into situation with inherent biases that we might not recognize. Works from Peggy McIntosh, such as "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack (PDF 18KB), and Project Implicit underline the need to work against some of our deeply-held beliefs. In the classroom, we need to recognize the privileges we bring and ask better questions. Humility in some aspects can make us more attuned to the needs of all students, but especially underserved students. When we ask good, honest questions of our students in the moments when we as teachers don't understand something, we seem more genuine.

Earlier in my career, for example, I thought I knew all about my students, so when I saw someone sleeping in class, I would attribute that to laziness or apathy. One day, we called his parent into school to find out what was going on and why this student couldn't pay attention. As it turned out, his mother worked weird factory shifts, from 3PM to midnight, often leaving him with little supervision. One night, he accidentally left his keys inside his apartment, which meant he was locked out until she got home. Every teacher needs that sort of humility, even if we share a cultural background, because it can be easy to forget that we teach students.

After that experience, I tend to ask more than I assume, which should be a general rule of thumb for all teachers. Those with even less information about the students should ask more questions. Some of our most intelligent civil rights organizations recently joined forces to make recommendations to President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about the future of education. The one that stuck out the most for me was the idea of cultural competence as professional competence. In many circles, this matters more than our current debates on testing, Common Core, and school funding. For our students, the person who they see as the beacon of hope or the agent of their oppression (and everything in between) is their teacher. Excellent educators embrace this for themselves and for all of their students.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Powerful article, Jose, and as someone who teaches students who come from a radically different background to my own, I feel that you have covered a lot of important ground here. I would add only two things: you wrote about being a teacher rather than a friend, and I agree with that. I was always taught to 'be friendly, but not their friend' - it's not bad advice for a beginning teacher. Good teachers, I have always found, know their students in two different ways: they know them as learners, but they also know them as individuals.

The second point that I would make is that it's important to take into account the content of what we teach, as that is often divisive along race, gender and class lines, too. I know that in Australia, for example, there is a preponderance of white male English authors when compared to other races and genders - although that is slowly changing (I hope). I know that this is a huge topic, however!

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Great insights here, Jose, as always! I appreciate your posts, and this one is no exception. Thank you for acknowledging the hectic nature of a teacher's day, and for the helpful tips toward mindfulness, intentionality, and relational engagement. My day is so full of tasks that I often feel buried under the piles of things to do. It is easy to forget that relationships are first! I believe that wholeheartedly, but I also admit that I am quick to become distracted by the never-ending urgent requests from admin, from parents, from my own sense of needing to get things done... I lose track of my priorities far more often than I want to admit.

On top of that, and this is at the heart of your message, as we are buried under the tasks, we can forget to set aside assumptions, and cultural biases we thought we had addressed. Like your reference to students sleeping in class, I have assumed the wrong thing only later to find out that a student is living in his car, or who has a parent with cancer, or who was kicked out of the house... There are so many stories underneath the surface level behaviors that we must be very careful not to assume anything! Reflective questions, offers of support and helpful connections to services on and off campus are much better solutions.

Good reminders in your post, Jose, thanks!


B. Nohre's picture

What a great post and a great reminder to look at our students as individuals! I find it so easy to get caught up in covering curriculum that I forget my students are just kids sometimes. Many of my students have very rough family lives and most of their misbehavior stems from that. Thanks for the wonderful information about building relationships; school is that one stable, safe place for many of my students and they need someone they can trust and rely on!

AshtonR's picture

It is easy for people to get caught up and not realize the efforts of others. This was a good post and did a good job of acknowledging the hectic lifestyles of a teacher. It was really inspiring to read your words about mindfulness, intentionally, and relationship engagement. It was good to hear about the differences of others and how important it is to value the qualities of people who are different from our "norm".

Clare Roach's picture
Clare Roach
Coordinator, English as a New Language Program, Institute for Educational Initiatives, University of Notre Dame

I loved this article, Jose! The only thing I'd add is that we all need to think about ways to intentionally build opportunities to listen into our day. For middle and high school educators who teach 100+ students a day, it's especially important. A few things that come to mind are carving out lunch and after-school time to schedule students to come for a visit. It's much easier to listen when you're one-on-one or in a small group with students. I've found that student love these opportunities to have "special" time with a teacher. Writing opportunities that elicit self-reflection are also great opportunities to" listen" to a child's voice.

Mrs. Van Dyck's picture
Mrs. Van Dyck
Middle School Science Teacher

Wow! As always, I am glad to not be alone in these situations and I value the real-world article and responses!
In my first semester at a new school I cried every day and willed myself to get up and get to work. The students were terrible to me. As soon as January rolled around, my toughest students were claiming me to be their favorite teacher. What?!??!
I learned that students DO try to read us and many have trust & abandonment issues not only from their personal lives, but from the still recent years of national layoffs where students anticipated getting their older siblings' teacher and got a fresh face, instead. They may test us to see if we have a breaking point and, if not, then they finally seem to feel confidence in us, and in themselves to give in to the whole dynamic - THEN the learning can begin. All of this on top of sleep, diet, family life, immigration issues, money and shelter concerns, not to mention how they will get to school in the morning. We must remind ourselves that for many school is a safe zone. If not, why else would the most demanding "TLC" students ALWAYS show up?
Thank you for such powerful insight and perspectives, peers!

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