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Listening Is a Teacher's Most Powerful Tool

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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.

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