A Pledge to Listen
This summer I enjoyed the time my wife and I were able to spend with our two year-old son, Mason. Whereas a summer spent with a two year-old may conjure images of tantrums, potty training mishaps and struggles to leave the house with some sort of clothing (and, sure, there were some of those things), it was a very productive summer with respect to my growth as a teacher and I didn’t do much work at all. Sure, at times I felt guilty for not reading the stack of ASCD books I had piled up or reworking the lessons I swore I would do as soon as school got out, but in not doing those things I learned so much more.
In the early weeks of summer this scene seemed to play itself over and over again: Mason would be content playing with his trucks so I would sneak into the kitchen to attack the mounting pile of dishes. Suddenly my soapy silence would be broken, “Daddy! Daddy!” Wanting to wash at least one dish I would respond, “Just a minute, I’m busy.” Then we would ping-pong “Daddy!” and “Just a minute” back and forth until I finally went to the other room, usually to listen to him demonstrate his latest creative pronunciation of “fire truck” or “bulldozer”.
Through this and similar experiences, two things struck me: First, if I listened—even just for a second—Mason was able go back to his independent play and I back to the dishes. He simply had to be heard. If I addressed his need by listening, we could both continue doing what we were doing. Second, and most important, it struck me that I had failed to learn this lesson through almost a decade of teaching experience. I became shamefully aware that the same scene had played itself out as students entered the door in the morning. I would be busy with attendance and other morning administrative tasks, yet a student wanted to tell me about something that happened the night before. Usually, not wanting to “waste” any learning time, my response would be something to the effect of, “Can you just wait and tell me during recess?” I realize now that, no, they probably couldn’t just wait until recess. Just like Mason, they had to tell me right then. They had possibly been waiting all night to tell someone and they had to be heard. By refusing to listen I not only kept these students from being heard, but perhaps also unable to engage productively with the tasks at hand, unlike Mason, who was able to return to his truck play. I began to question the consequences of my unwillingness to listen: What was the effect on our relationship? How attentive were they until recess? Were they learning anything?
There is nothing comfortable about realizing that you have been putting your own needs ahead of your students and it doesn’t make it any easier knowing that it is probably having a negative impact on their learning—the very reason you are there in the first place. Nonetheless, I’m thankful to have realized just how important it is to prioritize the social and emotional needs of students. This is especially important as we as teachers are pushed to increase student achievement by increasing instructional time at all costs. Mason, however, showed me that giving a little time results in far reaching benefits in relationships, attention, and learning.
So before the new school year begins I pledge to honor the social and emotional needs of my students and prioritize their needs over mine. I pledge to make the time, to be there, to listen.