Thursday, April 4, 2013

When We Listen

I am a teacher.  I have taught for five years now.  Consequently, I have encountered a large number of children, many of whom are now actively evolving from children into adults.  I am constantly reminded that, while there are some differences between children and adults, in most ways we are the same, with just some minor height differentials.  This does not surprise me now, though it did seem like a revolutionary idea when it first dawned on me.  Children are like microcosms of us.  Every single day I see reflected in "my" children behaviors, thoughts, attitudes, and dreams that I, too, possess.

One of the things I value most about my experience as a teacher is the way I have come to appreciate different personalities.  The way I now tolerate, accept, and understand differences in others that would never have made sense to me before.  The bottom line is: they don't have to make sense.  Other peoples' differences are theirs, not mine.  Just because it is something I wouldn't choose or do or say doesn't mean it isn't absolutely right for another person.

As I grew in this realization, I came to fully appreciate all "my" children.  And with the knowledge that children are just tiny adults, I then transferred this appreciation to those bigger people in my life.  As time passed, I realized I love that through teaching I get to know so many people, watch them grow and change and develop, and foster interests and desires different than my own.  Everyone has a story.  I love stories (can't tear me away from a good book!).  And children love to share their stories with you!  Listening to those stories could very well be one of the most important things we can do for them.

Children can tell when you don't really want to listen.  When you hear them, but don't truly take in what they are saying.  All the "uh huhs" and "ehmms" and "yeses" and "oh reallys" and "wows" that you absently mouth while you are trying to get the pencils sharpened, the papers stacked, the books out---they see through those things!  Truth be told, adults see through them, too, but they are just too polite to call you on them.  We are all guilty of it.  Life gets in the way, responsibilities pile up, and the powers that be bear down hard.

Especially as a teacher at this time, with the state of education being what it is, we are weighed down with testing testing testing and rubrics and evaluations and the implementation of such pie in the sky concepts as differentiation, grouping, assessment, and Bloom's Taxonomy (don't even get me started on the acronyms).  I find that elementary school teachers in particular become obsessed with things like interactive bulletin boards, color coded file folders, and elaborately designed word walls.  But nothing I have ever done as a teacher---no strategy implemented, no lesson planned, no organized filing system---has made as much of a difference in the lives of "my" children as listening to them.  Seemingly the simplest technique in the book, actually taking in their stories and responding in a meaningful way has far more of an impact on children than any other research based practice.  You want to talk about high quality instruction?  Nothing has aided me more in this endeavor than the stories the children tell about themselves and their world.

Why?  Because suddenly I know them!  Better than any score on a test or anecdotal observation or peer evaluation (see what we go through as teachers?!).  I know what they love, what they are passionate about, what moves them, what makes them laugh.  And then I know how to reach them!    

There are times when it is so tempting to say, "I don't want to hear about what happened at soccer practice yesterday.  Could we please just work on addition facts."  Or, "Really your drive to the beach is over and done with, and can't we get back to pronouns?"  Or possibly even more accurate, "I understand that your cat must be the only cat in the world who climbs trees, kills birds, and scratches people, but can I just have a moment of peace and quiet, please?"

The best part of all of this?  It isn't even about the student-teacher relationship?  It's about all our relationships.  Period.  How do we really come to know our friends, spouses, sisters, brothers, neighbors without listening to their stories?  Hearing how they perceive themselves and their place in the world has a direct impact on the relationships we are able to build with them.  If you take the time to listen, you may even find the littlest details fascinating.  And you might discover that the stories of those around you give you far more than you ever believed, that the joy, hilarity, and wonder gained exponentially exceeds the little bit of time sacrificed or energy expended by you.  I know that's the way I felt when I stumbled upon this one afternoon.

Sometimes the magic is in the tiniest of stories.

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