Listening for the Needs Behind the Questions

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As I prepare to begin my fourteenth year of teaching, I notice that my usual easeful thoughts of confidence and excitement to welcome a new group of fifth graders have shifted, leaving me feeling much like I did in my first year as I stepped into the great unknown. Perhaps, like me, you are now planning out socially distanced versions of your favorite first-week-of-school collaborative activities. As each one of these versions comes up short, it is clear how different this fall will be and how many questions remain.

Many teachers thrive on routine and structure. We maintain an undercurrent of calm while navigating the waters above: managing student behavior, sup-porting academic challenges, and keeping a watchful eye on everything and everyone to ensure our students are safe and supported. With so many shifts in the current educational environment, we may now wonder how to find that ease through dependable routines and structures. How can we honor our discomfort with this approaching unknown while still remaining committed to delivering a meaningful educational experience to our future students?

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Be patient toward all that is unsolved . . . try to love the questions themselves . . . Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given [to] you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer” (Rilke, 2012).

Embracing the approaching onslaught of questions is where we may actually find the answers. Our students’ questions and concerns can point us in the direction of what will require our attention and care. Their questions can reveal how hungry they are to establish trust, make authentic connections, and experience joyful and safe classrooms. As we practice deeply listening to our students’ concerns, we can begin to know how to find the new structure within uncertainty. While we may not be able to answer all of their questions, we can begin to hear the needs behind the questions and acknowledge their hopes and fears. For example, a student asking about whether a highly anticipated field trip will still occur reveals their desire to have a fun and unique experience. A student asking about the possibility of having to return to online learning shows their need for connection and community. Questions about sharing materials and cleaning protocols may reveal the under-lying needs for security and physical well-being.

Our role may shift to helping students identify what emotions, hopes, and concerns underlie their uncertainties as they picture a very different version of school, and then guiding them to understand-ing there are many ways to get those needs met. One strategy for engaging students in a productive and positive conversation about their questions is through the use of envisioning language. Envisioning language helps students clearly see what is possible, even when faced with changes and challenges. As teachers, we can support our students by facilitating conversations about getting their needs met and creating a safe and joyful learning environment while maintaining new guidelines and restrictions. By inviting students into these conversations, we help them feel more connected to their classroom community and engaged in the expectations and new opportunities.

Examples of Envisioning Language Linked to Underlying Needs

  • What needs to happen so that everyone can feel safe during this activity?” (Underlying needs: safety, security, cooperation)
  • “How would it look if our entire classroom needs to share this space during lunchtime while maintaining personal space?” (Underlying needs: order, respect, safety)
  • “Knowing the given restrictions, what are other ways we could create a fun and joyful opportunity to do something special together as a class? How could we make this happen?” (Underlying needs: play, connection)
  • “What would it look like for our entire class to do their best learning while still respecting the new guidelines?” (Underlying needs: growth, learning, safety)
  • “What can you do to help contribute to the well-being of our class?” (Underlying needs: contribution, community, autonomy)

Helping students develop the skill of envisioning what is possible, especially during unusual and challenging times, will certainly help them navigate uncharted territory both now and in the future. Beyond simply answering their questions, teachers can model a collaborative strategy for problem-solving and a structure for finding autonomy within boundaries that support the needs of the entire classroom community. As we involve our students in positive conversations about what is achievable and honor the needs behind their questions, we will live our way into the answers.

Envisioning language helps students clearly see what is possible, even when faced with changes and challenges.