The English Teacher

Listening to students and Hearing them.

I was talking to a former 9th grade student a while ago, asking her about her classes. She described the actions of one teacher by saying, 'he never listens to anyone.'

Listening and hearing sometimes become two separate concepts. We talk about listening and there are many books that deal with listening skills. We are trained to 'listen' to students' concerns. However, there is one place that we perhaps do not *hear what a student is saying, and that place is the classroom. Proper feedback, we are told, needs to come in a situation where and when a listener can process it. We know when we talk to someone who is busy, or has a present problem, that we should probably bring our subject up another time.

However, many students do not possess these skills or this awareness and often present their concerns to teachers when teachers are busy, stressed, and in front of class. Teachers 'naturally' react defensively then. Also, some teachers have learned from childhood that the teacher is 'always right.' Therefore, now that they are teachers, they also 'always have to be right.'

However, always being 'right' is an impossibility and having that viewpoint cuts teachers off from valuable student feedback, no matter how untimely and impolitely it is delivered.

Consider how teachers feel when an administrator gives them the 'listening but not really listening' treatment. [*A vice-principal I know told about an administrative training class she attended which gave the underlying feeling that since administrators are on a 'higher strata,' they don't need to 'hear' teachers.] How many problems would be solved in a school were administrators to listen to their teachers? Similarly, how many classroom problems would be solved by teachers listening to their students?

In the classroom, it may be those students with poor social skills, poor understanding, and a lack of higher reasoning, who blurt out their observations of problems with our lesson plans, our tests, or our personal teaching practices. They say loudly, "Mr. Jones, how come you're doing this? This won't work, Mrs. Smith, etc."

When this happens, we look around and want to save face... We then are inclined to discipline these students in some way, berate them, or lower their status. It is a very strong temptation to do so.

However, I have learned through the years, that these students are a source of knowledge, things that other students feel, but are too reserved to tell. And I have learned that once these students are heard, and then changes are made in classroom procedures, that present and future classes run more smoothly and with more harmony. Undercurrents of stress, that I hadn't been aware of before are eliminated. So, these students can be a great help to us. They don't need to be sought out, or made disproportionately important, or encouraged to report problems; their spontaneous response/feedback is more valuable than if they were to consciously try to reason out their opinions.

Please be aware of the importance of this concept. Even though it is difficult and painful at times to receive feedback, 'hearing' our students brings great benefits. When teachers do not 'hear' student feedback and give an angry response, all their students will eventually learn to remain silent, but they will still feel the same way. And outside class such teachers' shortcomings will be reported in students' discussions with each other and perhaps in their homes. It is much better to take the temporary pain of giving up face and the illusion of 'knowing it all' and learning how to teach better by 'hearing' our students.

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