On Listening

I heard a student’s story today.

It was not the first story I heard from this student. It won’t be the last. On some level, it could be argued that it was only the latest chapter of this student’s life that he’s chosen to tell me. It was a particularly hard story for him to tell – as it demanded that he unpack some of the really painful parts of his life. And for various reasons, I was one of the people he’s chosen to tell this part of his story to.

I wish I could write that I had some brilliant wisdom to impart to him. I don’t think I did. I certainly tried to be helpful. And I tried to help him make sense of how his story informs who he is today and how it might affect the person he is trying to become. And I don’t think I did any harm with what I said. But what I said probably mattered a lot less than this.

I listened.

On my best days, I’m better listener than I am a talker. I wish I could tell you that I was that every day, but it’s not. But I’m working on it, because I think it’s what so many kids need.

I’ve written about this before, but I really think that deep, active listening is at the core of the difference between “care about” and “care for.” Caring about a student is hard enough, but caring for a student means really knowing them – knowing all that they are willing (or able) to share.

Listening deeply to students means learning about how their lives inside and outside our classrooms. It means learning how their racial identities, gender identities, familial identities, economic realities, religious identities, life experiences all are part of who we see in our classes every day.

In an era where, in too many schools, students are told that the secret to success is to do exactly what they are told – exactly what everyone else is doing, listening to our students and then taking the time to make sure that what we learn from our students informs our own actions is an educationally revolutionary act.

In the end, deeply listening to the stories our students tell us — and trying to be the person our students need to be in response — is nothing short of an act of radical love.

3 thoughts on “On Listening

  1. Students desperately need someone to listen because that means you acknowledge that they matter to you – that they are important. It is so hard to find the time to listen when there are so many other things that absolutely have to be done, but there is nothing that will make a greater impact. I had a really good principal who said that the most important thing we could do as teachers to help students was to build appropriate relationships with them. That means getting to know them and building trust. It also means putting in the time and the effort to know students individually. It can make all of the difference in the world. Thanks for the reminder.

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  3. This is a timely post for me. I have had very similar conversations with two students in the past week or so. I really think it does make a difference in their life and ours. As another poster mentioned, the number of students we see throughout the day can be overwhelming in so many ways. But being that person for just a few of them makes a big impact. Plus, a lot of them don’t need that from us, and I probably can’t emotionally handle many more 🙂