Monday, July 18, 2011


Calvin Coolidge once said, "No man ever listened himself out of a job."

I find this especially true in teaching...and especially hard to do.

1.  Listening requires halting one's own agenda and truly taking in the moment as it is.
2.  Listening may mean abandoning one's plans and adjusting one's course, perhaps rather significantly.
3.  Convention: Teachers are trained to teach, not listen, and students are taught to listen, not teach.

If it's so difficult, why do it?
1.  Because there's no better way to gauge where your students are.  Indicators can be wrong or biased.  Secondhand accounts are not complete.  And your students are TRYING to tell you.  Why not listen?
2.  Because it establishes a sense of worth, rapport, and belonging.  Someone who is listened to is someone who is valued.  We want to be valued, and we do better when we feel we belong.

So how do you do it?
Ahhhh.... This is where I fail a lot.

1.  Slow down your own feedback.  I come from an area with rapid-fire conversation.  This doesn't always work in the classroom.  Sure, it's fun for drilling and can be good for joking, but it doesn't help for listening. 

So to do this:
a.  Stop.  After you have asked your question, don't explain. Shut your mouth.
b.  Engage your student with your eyes.  Don't break eye contact. 
c.  Count to five after your student stops speaking to make certain he or she is truly finished.
d.  Resist the urge to make an evaluative comment and ask a follow up question.  This is really hard, and at first, students will want reassurance.  I sometimes say, "I really want to know what you think" or "I really like hearing your thoughts."  This is less evaluative than my gut response but still indicates my pleasure in the continued conversation.

2.  Check for nonverbal cues.  Are your students fidgeting? Are they leaning forward engaged? How do they participate?  Who talks to whom?  What makes them laugh?  Does one laugh and not another?

3.  Put yourself out there, especially if you want negative feedback.  Positive feedback is needed, but sometimes you need to get at the negative emotions to reach the positive ones.  Start with your own example, e.g., "When I was in school, I hated when...," or even start with yourself, e.g., "I really hate when I ______ in class."  Identifying the problem is the first step to finding a solution!

4.  Incorporate what you heard into what you do.  If you listen to what was said and then throw it out the window, then you have actually made the situation worse.  Act on what you have heard.  Even if you don't completely follow the students' advice, you can incorporate pieces of it into your plans--and draw their attention to it!  Besides, seeing their own plans in action and watching how they work is a step in becoming self-determining and self-sufficient--the end goal of all education.

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