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Taking the Time to Listen Well

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At the school where I currently serve as principal is a framed poster hanging on the wall in our conference room, which says:

When families and teachers collaborate on behalf of children, they create windows of light for generations to follow.

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The print was given to me as a gift in 1995 at the end of the school year when I was teaching in an elementary school, and it has followed me throughout my
28 years as a teacher and principal. It currently hangs in our school conference room because this is where our team usually meets with the families of our students, often for challenging conversations. It’s there to serve as a subtle reminder to families as well as to teachers and me that a collaborative relationship between home and school is not about any one of the grown-ups but rather about the individual child. Because teaching does focus on individual children, the success of our work affects not only the one child but also generations to come.

Dictionary.com (2020) defines collaborate as “to work, one with another; to cooperate.” At the heart of cooperation is the need to listen. Listening can sometimes be hard for educators because we tend to be verbal people. In addition, our time is limited: limited in class, limited during family conferences, limited in meetings. In our fast-paced, tech-driven world that we live in, time and attention spans are short. And there is a lot we “need” to say.

Listening is complicated. It is much more than being silent or repeating back what someone has said. John Hester (2013) indicates that we listen with “our ears, our eyes, and our hearts.” He goes on to note that “True listeners look beyond the words themselves—they search for meaning in the speaker’s tone and body language.” He cites the work of Dr. Albert Mehrabian, who found the following in a study (Mehrabian, 1967, as cited in Hester, 2013):

55 percent of meaning is in facial expression

38 percent of meaning is in the tone of voice

7 percent of meaning is in the words that are spoken

To listen well takes time. And in the current world of nearly virtual everything, how much are we failing to “hear”?

Early in my career as a teacher, I would spend the short conference time talking “at” the family member. The information was important—test grades, examples of the student’s work, what I saw on the playground. I eventually realized that I was talking at them and not listening to them and what they had to
say. After a few years I changed my focus from how much I could share during the 15-minute conference to how much I could listen. In changing my approach, I invited each family to develop three goals for their child. At our fall conference, we would review the goals, and I would gather more information about why the goals were important to the family. Listening to what was important to the family provided me with a focus for their child as we worked together throughout the school year. For example, John’s family worried about his reading skills, Sinead’s family wanted her challenged more in math, and Jasmine’s family wondered about her relationships with friends. By focusing on each child’s goals, I was able to provide some early feedback to the family about what I was seeing.

By the time we held our spring conferences, the conversation became more substantial. I would pull out the goals from the fall and ask the family how they thought the child was progressing, providing an opportunity for the family to initiate the conversation. There were times when the family had forgotten what the
goals were, and other times when the goals had shifted during the course of the year. In each case, though, I could share what I had seen in response to the priorities of the family. By using this model, the student’s family “led” the conversation in our conference, and I was able to learn what was important to them.

When I moved into the role of a school administrator, I fell into a similar pattern from when I was a new teacher: I had lots of important things to say that families needed to hear. But as I grew into the role, I found a better way. Ten years ago, I arrived at a new school that had a very strong and committed parent-teacher organization. Over the course of my first months there, I embarked on a journey of listening to families and teachers tell me about their school—what they liked best about it, what made them proud of being a part of the school community, and which traditions were important to them. We used a very low-tech method that involved lots and lots of sticky notes and dots, and conversation. Although some families expected to see immediate change based on the conversations that we had, the process was slow, spanning several months. Throughout this process, I didn’t do much talking. Instead, I listened. A lot. I asked clarifying questions, and I gently pushed quieter families to offer their input. Each month we welcomed new voices to the conversation as we saw priorities emerge from our work. The time spent with the families created a plan for me to follow as I began my tenure at this school. Certain priorities emerged (You must do something about dismissal procedures and the backed-up line of cars!), but I also heard more general requests to provide opportunities for families
to be involved in their child’s education and a desire to build a sense of community.

I served this community for eight years, and at my last PTO meeting with them, I pulled out the sticky notes and dots and the results of our initial work together to review with them. While many of the families had changed at that point, what became clear was that their priorities and desires had led the work we did together (although the car line was still an issue). By initially taking the time to listen, the work we accomplished was collaborative and productive.

We are all busy people. The expectations placed on educators—both teachers and administrators—are high. We have important things to say that families need to hear. But in our importance and all of our talking, how much are we really listening? How much do we hear? We need to listen and listen well, and in doing so, create windows of light for the generations that follow.


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