Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Listening Is a Teacher’s Most Powerful Tool

By Beth Pandolpho — March 07, 2018 4 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

One of our most powerful strategies as teachers is to listen to our students, to learn who they are, and to find out what sparks their curiosity. When I started listening more intentionally to my 9th grade English students last fall, I learned that Anna prides herself on being funny. Jeffrey was disenchanted with the dystopian books he once loved. Julia shared a touching story about her dad, and Lily told me that she loves the young-adult novel Eleanor and Park as much as I do.

As Anne Lamott writes in her book Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, listening is “an exchange, like an echo inside a canyon.” If we listen closely to our students’ voices, their words can guide us to impart the skills they need for today’s technology-driven world. We can use what we know about students personally to engage them in becoming conscientious readers, effective writers, and wise consumers of information.

Today’s students receive information at a rapid-fire pace through push notifications and trending social media posts. This immediate and unrestricted access to knowledge makes many students feel overconfident about the scope and depth of their competence, expertise, and worldliness. In my own classroom, I have seen that some students no longer feel they need to rely on their teachers as the sole proprietors of knowledge. This makes many teachers—myself included—feel as though they need to speak even louder.

On the contrary, well-worn teaching strategies that are heavy on teacher input, such as lecturing, notetaking, rote memorization, and multiple-choice quizzes, are not sufficient preparation for the real-world skills our students need. We must reconsider the old notion that students must be quiet and listen to their teachers. In order to break through the distraction and noise of their smartphones, we need to listen to them.

Making Time for Questions

I would like to think that I’ve always been a teacher who took time to listen to students. But this school year, I’ve learned how truly powerful it is to talk less and listen more. Our department recently began an initiative to encourage choice reading through individual student-teacher conferences. In classes bursting with students, the task seemed daunting.

We had together created a classroom culture that represented and honored students as individuals."

Was this really a valuable use of class time? What would the other students be doing during the conferences? How essential was it to talk to each student about books we hadn’t read in class?

But the five minutes I spent with every student discussing their personal reading preferences has forged relationships that enhanced my ability to teach. The intimate moments we shared led to more critical conversations in our narrative writing unit. When Lily was struggling with how to narrate a story, we talked about how author Rainbow Rowell skillfully used an omniscient narrator in Eleanor and Park, and how this technique helped Lily know what the character was thinking. She decided she would follow suit in her own piece.

When Jeffrey and I discussed formulaic patterns in dystopian novels, we contemplated aspects of society worthy of criticism that might inspire him to create his own dystopia. And when Julia felt uncertain about her main character’s parents, I recounted the story she told me about her dad and suggested she use him as an inspiration. Knowing more about my students’ lives, passions, and interests provided an opening for deeper learning.

The Motivating Power of Listening

A supportive and personalized classroom environment provides the best route to help students master essential self-regulation skills. This is in part because giving students choices about the work they do within the guidelines of an assignment increases motivation. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, author Daniel Pink writes that autonomy is key to engagement. Only when students engage fully can they become masters in a subject. In our narrative unit, students were eager to consult with me to flesh out their ideas because the process and the product reflected their voices and decisions.

I also noticed that students felt more comfortable engaging in difficult conversations. During our whole-class discussion on Romeo and Juliet, I posed the question: Who is at fault for Juliet’s death? After a spirited debate, my students decided that Juliet is ultimately responsible because she feels she has no other choice. Then I asked, “How does it feel to be a teenager when the adults in your life don’t listen?”

Students shared stories of the crushing pressure to earn perfect scores and their parents’ insistence that they disregard their passions and talents to pursue math and science. They understood the devastation of having few options and the accompanying feelings of isolation.

I reminded them of what James Baldwin once wrote: “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

And in that moment, I realized: We had together created a successful learning culture that represented and honored students as individuals, as well as gave them ways to connect. And it all began when I not only answered questions, but started asking them.

The educator Michael Sadowski writes in Educational Leadership that students “have an intense desire to be heard by adults—and to be seen ... as the complex people they are, with real-world problems, concerns, and hopes for the future.”

When students feel heard, their potential is boundless.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Drive Instruction With Mastery-Based Assessment
Deliver the right data at the right time—in the right format—and empower better decisions.
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Profession Webinar
How Does Educator Well-Being Impact Social-Emotional Awareness in Schools?
Explore how adult well-being is key to promoting healthy social-emotional behaviors for students. Get strategies to reduce teacher stress.
Content provided by International Baccalaureate
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
IT Infrastructure Webinar
A New Era In Connected Learning: Security, Accessibility and Affordability for a Future-Ready Classroom
Learn about Windows 11 SE and Surface Laptop SE. Enable students to unlock learning and develop new skills.
Content provided by Microsoft Surface

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Q&A 'Brown v. Board' Decimated the Black Educator Pipeline. A Scholar Explains How
A new book digs into a lesser-known and negative consequence of one of the nation's most significant civil rights milestones.
9 min read
As her pupils bend themselves to their books, teacher Marie Donnelly guides them along in their studies at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, New York, Sept. 28, 1959. In her 40 years of teaching, never has Donnelly had so many African-American students in a class. The youngsters were bused to the school from Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, a predominantly black neighborhood where schools are overcrowded. P.S. 77, which had an enrollment of 368 all-white students, can handle 1000 children comfortably. Parents in the Queens neighborhoods objected to influx, but the children themselves adjusted to one another without incident.
A white teacher teaches a newly integrated class at P.S. 77 in the Glendale section of Queens, N.Y., in September 1959.
AP
Teaching Profession Opinion Short On Substitute Teachers? Here's Something States Can Do
Student teachers can make good substitutes, but the rules often don't allow them to step in, write two researchers.
Dan Goldhaber & Sydney Payne
4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a new employee fitting into the workplace puzzle
Sergey Tarasov/iStock/Getty
Teaching Profession In Their Own Words 'I'm Afraid to Return to the Classroom': A Gay Teacher of the Year Speaks Out
Willie Carver, Jr., the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year, is questioning his future as a teacher given recent anti-LGBTQ legislative efforts.
8 min read
Montgomery County teacher and Kentucky Teacher of the Year, Willie Carver, in downtown Mt. Sterling, Ky., on May 11, 2022.
Willie Carver is the 2022 Kentucky Teacher of the Year and teaches high school English and French in the Montgomery County, Ky., public schools.
Arden Barnes for Education Week
Teaching Profession Teacher Morale Is at a Low Point. Here's Where Some Are Finding Hope
It’s been a hard few years for teachers. These are the moments with students that are keeping them going.
8 min read
Conceptual Illustration of figure wallpapering blue sky over a dark night
francescoch/iStock via Getty