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.

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“I’m not sure anymore”

I was talking to my cousin this weekend, a sophomore in college who is studying elementary education and is in the midst of the university’s education program. I was asking him how his semester was going, and he expressed some concerns and stated, more or less, that he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a teacher anymore.

His concerns mostly stemmed from one class and one professor. The class was a literacy class and entailed a classroom-experience component in which each college student provides reading support to a first-grader. My cousin, if I can brag a bit, is an intelligent, creative, and laid-back guy who has a gift for engaging kids. This semester, though, he has felt really stifled by the professor who, in his opinion, only focuses on the students’ growth and the academic portions of the sessions. He continued to state that every portion of the lesson needs to be planned out and that there really isn’t any room for him to connect with the student or find other ways to engage him.

This narrative sounded familiar to me. After spending a few years in charter schools in New York City, I am accustomed to a regimented, academic schedule where every second of every lesson is planned to maximize student growth and achievement. And, in some ways, I get it. I understand the importance of having a good plan, of knowing how long different portions of a lesson should take, and of thinking through the little details.

But I also see the flip-side. I know the importance of connecting and engaging with kids. I know how important it is that kids feel heard and wanted and safe in the classroom. And I know how much this type of engagement boosts student morale which, of course, will also boost student achievement. In short, I know that successful teachers find the balance of both.

I can’t remember exactly what I said to my cousin, but I like think it sounded something like this: Yep, that sounds right. I’ve been there. And you’ll be there again, too. You’ll come across all sorts of professors and principals – some who only seem to care about academics and others who take a more whole-child approach. But right now, what matters is how you feel in those moments when you see a concept click for a struggling student, or when you do get to engage with kids and see that you and your ideas are capable. If, in these moments, you love it and want more – don’t give up on teaching, because we need more teachers like you. The fact that you can already see or feel that something isn’t quite right with this strictly-academic focus proves that you can succeed. Of course you’ll have to learn to navigate tough situations and learn to balance the expectations of your superiors with your own personal views. But trust yourself. Trust yourself and you’ll be great.

The jury’s still out as to whether or not he sticks with teaching, but, if he does and someday gets many teaching accolades, I’m taking credit.

What advice would you have given?