I find New Year’s Day to be an inspiring time to reflect and refresh my resolve for the year to come. While I relish the idealism of the holiday, I also know that the reality for education leaders is that each new year brings a new set of challenges that will undoubtedly complicate our long list of priorities. As you navigate the beginning of the year, remember that challenges are just opportunities by another name. As you catch up with colleagues, teachers, and students, be intentional about these moments of reconnection.
I always like to say we have two ears and one mouth, because we’re supposed to listen twice as much as we talk. As leaders, we are always busy balancing long-term goals for our schools with the urgent needs and concerns of our communities. It often feels like there is not enough time to engage fully with our communities when it comes to time-sensitive decisions, especially with polarizing issues that will require carefully facilitated dialogue. Despite our time constraints, availing ourselves to listen to our educators, parents, and students is essential for maintaining a safe and inclusive community.
When we create space for everyone to speak and be heard, it narrows the divide carved by polarization and reveals that we are all more connected than we realize. These connections can turn into collaborations that transform our schools for the better. They can lead to innovative solutions and a shared sense of ownership and commitment to a school’s or district’s progress. If we are to empower our communities in this way, we must lead by listening. After almost 30 years in the field, I can say that two things are critical for intentional listening: listening to understand, and listening to connect.
I’d like to share a moment from my first couple of years as a teacher that had a profound impact on me. The 1989 movie Lean on Me was, and still is, one of my favorite films. I absolutely wanted to be like Joe Clark, the principal of Eastside High, characterized in the movie. I was young, a little gruff, and personified a “tough love” attitude with all of my students.
One of my students, let’s call her Amanda, would come to class, regularly put her head down right away, and not put forth much effort. When I prompted Amanda to stay awake or reminded her to complete class assignments, she would respond to me with lots of attitude and was not easily redirected. As a new teacher, I decided to move on and focus my attention on all the kids who I thought really wanted to be there.
At some point in the year our administrator called a conference together to discuss Amanda’s school performance; included in this meeting were seven of Amanda's teachers, Amanda’s mother, and Amanda. I assumed my fellow teachers were all going to come to the table and bombard her mom with horror stories regarding Amanda’s behavior. Wouldn’t you know the science teacher, the English teacher, the history teacher––everybody but me––raved about what a great, inquisitive student Amanda was. For the next few days the difference between my experience with Amanda versus the experience enjoyed by my colleagues ate at me.
Soon after that meeting Amanda’s mom came up to me while I was standing in front of my portable classroom. She said “Hey, Mr Blackburn, would you mind if we had a conversation?” I thought maybe she was going to yell at me. Instead she said, “I think I know why Amanda is acting out in your class” and she showed me a picture of someone who looked just like me. It was Amanda’s father. As I would discover, Amanda’s ill regard for her father’s acts of mistreatment toward her and her mother was triggered by my resemblance to him. This moment totally changed my outlook, my attitude, and my treatment of Amanda. I learned that Amanda wasn’t going to be served well by my “tough love” approach. Fast forward 26 years and now I know that was an episode where I needed to prioritize understanding my student.
Listening to Understand
Listening to understand rather than listening to respond is an approach that involves more than just hearing what someone has said. As leaders, we like to be prepared. In conversations, we are oftentimes already formulating a response before the person we’re speaking with has even concluded their statement. We must abandon this practice. When we replace the desire to respond with a desire to comprehend, we can fully immerse ourselves in someone’s perspective and develop a more nuanced understanding of complex issues. It requires patience, an open mind, and a genuine sense of curiosity. It is a continuous effort, but if you commit to it you will foster a culture of empathy and respect, where diverse voices are valued for the richness they contribute to collective understanding.
Listening to Connect
Intentional listening has the power to enhance the quality of our interpersonal relationships with students, teachers, and communities. For students, active listening involves acknowledging their unique experiences and fostering an environment where their voices are heard and valued. With teachers, it means recognizing their insights, addressing their challenges, and collaboratively shaping solutions. When engaging with the broader community, active listening enables us to understand local needs, concerns, and cultural nuances. When we listen to connect, not only do we strengthen relationships, but we also pave the way for inclusive decision-making and collaborative problem-solving.
Listening does not always need to be tied to a particular outcome; the value is in the process. When education leaders prioritize the process of listening, they create an environment where students, teachers, and communities feel included and respected.
About the Author: Desmond K. Blackburn, PhD is President and Chief Executive Officer at Facing History & Ourselves, a national nonprofit organization that works with school systems to use lessons of history to challenge teachers and their students to stand up to bigotry and hate. He has spent nearly 30 years as a career educator (teacher, principal, superintendent, adjunct professor, and author). To find out how Dr. Blackburn and the Facing History team can support you, contact him here.