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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘The Listening Leader’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 19, 2017 6 min read
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Shane Safir agreed to answer a few questions about her new book, The Listening Leader: Creating The Conditions For Equitable School Transformation.

Shane Safir is a coach, facilitator, and leader who creates spaces for tackling educational equity. She was the founding principal of June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE), an innovative national model identified by scholar Linda Darling-Hammond as having “beaten the odds in supporting the success of low-income students of color.”

LF: What are a few dos and don’ts for those who want to be a “Listening Leader”?

Shane Safir:

I think educational leaders tend to fall into one of four archetypes: the Driver, the Manager, the Peacekeeper, and, more rarely, the Listening Leader. All four have merits and blind spots, but I see listening as the foundation of powerful leadership. Once we have a strong listening culture in place, we can grow a sense of urgency (Driver), coherent systems and structures (Manager), and a culture of care (Peacekeeper).

Here are a few must-dos for the Listening Leader:

  • View people’s stories, emotions, and experiences as forms of data, what I call street data
  • Spend at least half your time collecting street data through informal listening, focus groups, surveys, fishbowl discussions, and other tools; this is how you assess progress and uncover barriers
  • Model an orientation toward collegiality, shared leadership, professional growth, and equity
  • Develop listening and facilitation skills that help you build the capacity of others and host meaningful conversations
  • Encourage people to experiment with new practices in safe-to-learn ways

What should a Listening Leader not do?

  • View emotion as “unprofessional"; judge or dismiss people’s feelings
  • Think that a well‐planned initiative, with lots of steps, will be adequate to drive change
  • Lead from a “sense of urgency” and push people faster than they are ready to move (by all means, have a sense of urgency but understand the need to grow a trusting culture)
  • Make decisions with limited data or feeble efforts at gathering feedback
  • Forget that students and adults need a voice and a choice; the decision to learn is always the learner’s to make and as bell hooks once said, oppression is the absence of choices

LF: What are two or three specific actions educators can take over the next month to get into this kind of mindset and why do you think it’s important?

Shane Safir:

I would ask your readers, what are you struggling with right now? Is it getting students to buy in to your classroom culture? Is it parent engagement? Trust between colleagues? A listening mindset will help you impact each of these.

Chapters 7, 8, 10, and 11 of my book, The Listening Leader, are full of hands-on strategies for practicing a listening mindset. I highly recommend doing a Listening Campaign early in the year with key community members. Figure out the question you want to explore, decide whose voices you really need to hear, and organize confidential, private 30-minute listening sessions with at least five people—students, colleagues, etc.—that you can learn from. Take notes and then synthesize themes.

Here’s another simple, but high-leverage action: Do a focus group with some of your most vulnerable students or families. Set a tone of respect and humility (e.g. “I’m here to listen and learn from you”), offer guidelines to maintain a safe and trusting space (one mic, confidentiality, speak your truth, etc.), and ask five questions to better understand the experience of this group. Analyze this street data and make adjustments to your practice.

Finally, consider shadowing a student to gather intimate street-level data on his or her experience of school. Identify a student who represents a demographic that you (or your school) has not figured out how to serve well yet. Put on your tennis shoes, get a sub if needed, and ask this student’s permission to merely follow and observe him or her for the day. Take observation notes, listen deeply, and give yourself time to reflect on both the feelings that come up and the insights you gain.

LF: It seems to me that we teachers can tend to be more “tellers” than “listeners.” And, come to think of it, I suspect that most people are in the same boat. Do you think my impression is accurate? If so, why do you think that’s the case? If not, can you elaborate on your reasons, too?

Shane Safir:

Right, I completely agree with you! You know, I think this problem starts with our attachment to our content, sometimes at the expense of our students. Educators tend to be a bright, intellectual group of professionals who are passionate about content. But we can get trapped in the curse of knowledge—that cognitive bias that happens when a person communicates ideas with the assumption that others have the background knowledge they need to understand what’s being said. In the classroom, this adds up to a pattern of teacher-driven instruction, an over-reliance on lecture over constructivist methods, one-size-fits-all lesson plans, and many confused students.

Here’s another root cause of the “telling problem": we have failed to accord pedagogy the scientific respect it is due. Teaching is an incredibly complex and sophisticated art, and educators need space and time to study it as a field of knowledge, to push and pull at competing methodologies, and to read literature on how learning happens in the brain, which is a personal passion of mine. As we unpack the big ideas of cognition and learning theory, it becomes harder and harder to rely on “telling” to teach. Powerful pedagogy has deep listening and questioning at its core.

LF: I was a community organizer for nineteen years prior to becoming a teacher. Some of the ideas in your book have similarities to organizing, as you know. Can you talk about that connection?

Shane Safir:

Being a community organizer in the years before we opened June Jordan School for Equity (JJSE) was the single best training I got to become a school leader. I learned the power of listening to connect and bind people around a common purpose. The organizers who mentored me taught me to listen astutely with my eyes and ears, and to pay attention to what matters deeply to each individual. These skills form the backbone of Listening Leadership.

Organizing also provided me with a sense of a cycle for complex change. Working with the San Francisco Organizing Project, I learned that effective change begins with relationships, which always always begin with listening. I learned to conduct a one-on-one meeting in which the organizer spends 90 percent of his or her time listening. Next, I learned to engage community members in public research, bringing parents and students to the halls of power to ask public officials tough questions. And finally, I learned how to mobilize a large-scale action; our biggest action brought together 300 community members to ask the San Francisco school board to support a new small school, which became JJSE. And finally, I learned to close every cycle with reflection.

LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Shane Safir:

There’s such a sense of urgency out there about improving outcomes for our most vulnerable youth that people often seek quick fixes. We look for the curriculum, or the intervention program, or the expert who will solve our equity problem. But I’ve come to believe that there are no quick fixes and that both the problem and the solution lie within the community itself. Listening helps us unlock creative thinking and empower the least empowered members of our communities.

LF: Thanks, Shane!




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