An Unlikely Lesson in Listening

I recently ran into a former colleague. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year, so after some quick catching-up (“Where are you these days?”, etc.), the conversation inevitably turned to education and reflecting on our years of working at the same school in New York City.

The setting of our conversation (and the fact that the woman was no longer my direct supervisor) let us actually have a real discussion about education and our views, something that I felt was impossible during the time that we were working together.

We each shared openly our opinions of the school – positives and negatives. I shared that the school was a good place for me to grow as an educator in lots of ways, but that many of the lessons that stick with me the most are things that I want to avoid. She shared with me her transition from an under-resourced public school to a well-resourced charter school and how, from the start, she was “all-in” simply because of the resources that the school provided for the teachers.

As we continued talking, both of us began to understand the others’ perspective a bit more. As I shared my opinions on the lack of experience in a lot of the leadership positions and the inappropriate expecations for the children of the school, she listened and, it seemed, agreed with a lot of what I was saying. As she explained to me her perspective of systems of support for teachers and the what-should-be-simple idea of providing teachers with basic classroom supplies, I came to see her perspective a bit more.

At the close of our conversation, we grappled with the question of what needs to happen in education in the U.S., especially the education in those underserved communities that exist across the country. And we didn’t come up with an answer, of course. But we did talk about it. We openly shared our thoughts and opinions and also listened to one another.

For me, this idea of listening stuck with me more than anything else. While this colleague and I had a good working relationship, I assumed that our opinions on education were simply too different to ever have a meaningful conversation. That, I realize now, is a really dangerous attitude to have, and one that is all too pervasive in this world today – not just the world of education.

While nothing was solved, and my educational philosophy didn’t change all that much, I now better understand where my colleague, and others like her, are coming from. And, though there are obviously still areas where our beliefs will differ, we found a lot of common ground. I found myself nodding in agreement throughout the conversation.

In the midst of the mess that seems to be anything related to education (or politics) these days, I found hope in this conversation. I found hope in the ability that we all have to share our opinions without putting others down and listen to what others have to say.  Examples of this type of sharing and listening are what we need to demonstrate for our students. I can’t think of a better example to set for our kids.

Valuing the Little Moments

I am currently taking the year off of classroom teaching and have been spending a bit of time traveling and volunteering. My current volunteer assignment in Honduras, though multi-faceted, allows me to spend some time in a unique classroom setting. Let me explain a bit more.

Briefly, this nonprofit works with malnourished mothers and children in Honduras. The organization has a recovery center where mothers and their children can come to overcome their malnutrition. Mothers who come to the center are invited to bring all of their children, not just those that are malnourished, so there are often between 7-12 kids at the center, and generally about half of those are of school age.

Working in this system has been unique and challenging in lots of ways. For starters, the kids only speak Spanish, so my teaching has to be in Spanish (which means I’m not really bringing my A-game, if you know what I mean). There is also a wide range of ages in the class, and, on top of that, an even wider range of academic skills and abilities. These kids are coming from very rural communities which usually have schools but what is taught in each school can vary greatly.

This opportunity has given me the chance to reflect on some really important things regarding my own teaching practice. Honestly, some things that annoyed me about the schools where I worked, I realize now, are good and important ideas (at least in theory). One broad idea is that of assessment and its importance. I still strongly disagree with the quantity of assessments that took place at the schools where I worked and the amount of pressure that these assessments put on students (topics for another day), but I’ve been reminded that diagnostic assessments are so helpful. I had the chance to develop a quick diagnostic test for the kids that come to the center, and this five minute diagnostic gave me so much clarity for how I can best help each student, even if they are only around for a few weeks. In the future, I hope that the teacher can use this diagnostic as new students arrive.

While all of that is good, I’ve digressed from my main point. As I mentioned earlier, some days I’m with the kids, some days I’m doing other things, and other days I don’t know what I’m doing and have some down time while a plan is being created for me on the fly. Not knowing my schedule, especially when it comes to work, is something that annoys me, and I was complaining about this very thing today. I was complaining about how sometimes the teacher just expects me to teach a lesson when I’m around for an hour, even though I wasn’t planning on teaching and am completely unprepared. In the midst of these complaints and a vent session, though, I received some great advice and was reminded to, put simply, just have some ideas ready of things I can quickly do with the kids – activities that the kids enjoy that will also build their academic skills.

So, after being reminded of this, I stopped complaining and I went and did it. I found the younger kids who are still working on name writing, we got some markers, and we practiced writing our names. As basic as this activity is, they loved it. They chose their own markers, they switched up the colors, and I drew smiley faces by their correctly written names. It was great.

I realized, after thinking about this morning later in the day, how easy it is to complain about the big picture in the classroom and in a school; how easy it is to complain about the things that are annoying and frustrating. But what really matters is the kids. I was reminded of the importance of these little moments with the kids, and how little moments can have a huge impact on learning.

I’ll try my best to remember this in the future, though I’m sure my complaining days are not over – sorry to those who might have to listen 🙂