It seems that lately I’ve been doing a lot of listening. I’m not sure if it’s just that time of year where colleagues need to clarify and modify, but I’m finding more and more people at my door asking, “Hey, Peg. Could I just run this past you?” It’s never a question of seeking my approval; I’m not an evaluator. It’s more of a thought process; a kind of “I’ve-thought-about-this-lesson-or-project-and-I-just-need-you-to-hear-if-there-are-any-kinks-in-my-idea.” While part of my job description and my Twitter account is “Really Good Listener,” I’ve noticed that lately my active listening skills have been mightily tested. I’m not complaining. As the Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist of a large urban high school, I understand the power of keeping my ears open and my mouth closed.
Within these listening sessions, I try to focus on what my colleague is not saying. Sarah, our freshmen Spanish teacher, was wondering how to hold her students accountable for the group work she had assigned. I suggested the RAFT (Role of the Writer; Audience: To whom are you writing?; Format: In what format are you writing?; Topic: What are you writing about?) technique as a way to conference with her students. Sarah is a master teacher, capable of personal reflection and professional innovation. However, in this situation, she just needed someone to offer ideas on the accountability task: what could it look like and how might it work? I was grateful to be a part of this “conversation” and hoped my small contribution gave Sarah the idea she needed to continue planning. As the unit progressed, Sarah and I collaborated often. Again, the opportunity to listen, brainstorm and wonder supported our students in creating a project of which they were uniquely proud.
Andrew and I met recently to discuss how to assist our students in reading mathematics. Andrew is our math coordinator in the Personalized Blended Learning lab and supports students who need skill development. As I showed him the resources I had gathered and demonstrated how the resources are used in a reading lesson, Andrew began to brainstorm how to alter the materials for a math lesson. As he shared his thinking, I took notes and asked questions. Our “conversation” ended with the creation of a student calendar meant to enhance vocabulary, skill practice and math-based discussion. Andrew is a young teacher with innovative ideas willing to take risks. In this situation, his processing led us to design academic and behavioral standards that developing students need.
What’s the difference between venting and listening? We all need to vent once in a while; it does a body good. The eruption might be about a tired district mandate or a foolish administrative rule or an irresponsible colleague. But, nothing productive comes from the outburst and the person who is venting is usually doing it for a selfish reason: he/she simply wants to “dump” his/her troubles on the listener. After the outbreak, congratulations! You have now become the proud owner of his/her problem!
Listening, however, allows the listener to grow, develop and reflect. I have become a better listener and as a result, a better Instructional Coach. I listen to what my colleague is saying, or not saying, and wait for the right entry point to make a comment, ask a question or suggest a resource. In some cases, I don’t say anything. That, too, can be powerful for the person who is speaking. Giving that individual time to talk through an idea or a challenge often leads to an answer or a chance to consider or reconsider.
Imagine if our students had the luxury of processing their thoughts without a time limit or without a grade? What would it be like if students could just talk through an idea, or share an observation or consider a thought without evaluation? What if the person listening is able to give time and space to the rumination or perhaps, say nothing at all? Would our students assess their own progression? Would they come to their own conclusions? Would their dependability on the “right” answer become more of an exploration of possibilities?
Processing is a skill and like other skills, it needs to be modeled, coached and practiced. Let’s give our students the opportunity to focus on processing; thereby, giving them the chance to become better listeners, deeper thinkers and improved problem-solvers.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.