Make Listening a ‘New School Year’ Resolution
By Mike Janatovich
As we enter another school year, the halls of our middle school are filling with students and teachers. Some are excited. Some are sad. Some had a good summer, while others had things happen over break we cannot imagine.
Some will wear their feelings on their sleeves, while others will conceal every ounce of emotion to blend in and not be noticed. If we detach ourselves and only hear what they are saying, we will put ourselves in a losing position starting Day One. To be successful today and every day this school year, we must listen.
A simple glance at the definition of these two similar (but completely opposite) words opened my eyes to the realities of what it is like to be a middle school educator. At the middle level, we hear so much, but are we listening?
Simply defined, hearing is perceiving sound with the ear. Walking through the cafeteria, halls, or any gathering of middle school students, we might hear many things but choose to ignore them. If we do, this is where our effectiveness as educators begins to diminish.
As leaders, it is important to understand that all communication is critical to the success of our students. Whether what we hear is positive, negative, or neutral – we must recognize the message that is being sent and use what we learn to shape our actions.
Which brings us to the definition of listening. It means “giving one’s attention to.” While the definition is simple, the act of truly listening is extremely complex, requiring us to pay attention to all forms of communication in our schools – including the non-verbal signals.
I am a firm believer in the power of relationships, and I would rank listening as my number one way to build, maintain, and strengthen them. Listening builds trust within a school. If we hear students or teachers sharing things that are wrong, we must listen to their suggestions, and then act when appropriate. When we do this, we are building a culture in which everyone feels supported and will trust your leadership.
Listen to gauge school culture
Is the staff in your school happy and supported? If you are not listening, you will never know until it is too late.
The awesome thing about teachers is that for the most part they are resilient and project a positive attitude. This is even more true in middle schools where the energy levels spike frequently throughout the day.
True, there will be some educators who complain about everything and are not shy about sharing their concerns with you. But most of those we work with are true professionals and never reach that point. This tendency of educators to keep concerns to themselves will present a challenge for school and teacher leaders. The challenge is recognizing when something is wrong before it starts to impact us personally, or even worse, the school.
Part of being a good listener is making yourself available to teachers and other colleagues. But realistically, they are not always going to use our open invitation as an opportunity to share. So how else can we listen and gain a better understanding of the culture in our middle school?
We can listen to the kids
One fact of life: Middle school students love to talk. They talk about the positives and negatives that take place during the day. When we sit down and talk to them, they share freely. Use this to your advantage.
I do caution you that middle school kids might exaggerate, or they will sometimes twist the truth. My rule of thumb when talking to a student is that if they are talking about how they feel, I take it at full value. Conversely, when they are talking about teachers or other adults, I take it at a starting point.
Listen to what they are saying, then process that information and see if what you’re hearing fits into a larger pattern. When multiple students, in multiple groups, are saying similar things, a red flag should be going up.
Remember, listening is about gaining information to make informed decisions, it is not about reacting to something that you heard. The more you listen to students, the better you will get to know them and make good decisions about their reliability.
We can listen in the classrooms
When we are in classrooms, whether as building administrators or teachers, the expectation must be that all interactions with students are productive and positive. Yes, there will be frustrations, but even when we are frustrated, it’s our job as professionals to keep things moving in a positive direction. Being a careful and caring listener is critical to making this happen.
As silent observers, administrators can pick up on the nuances of classroom communication, including the non-verbal cues. By listening to how students interact with their teachers and how teachers interact with students, we can gain a tremendous amount of valuable knowledge about the individual classroom environment.
Active listening includes looking for changes in demeanor, changes in attitude, or changes in energy and enthusiasm. These are all potential signals that something is taking a negative turn.
Effective listeners must also be effective responders. When we detect a downshift in student or teacher behavior, it’s up to us to create an opportunity to start a conversation. We don’t wait for an opportunity to arise, we create one. So often the student or teacher who most needs to be heard is the one who is least likely to start the conversation.
We don’t want to begin by asking “what’s wrong?” Strive to start the conversation – whether it’s feedback, a compliment, or a reminder – with a positive tone. Respect the speaker’s need for privacy, if that’s appropriate. You will be amazed what you will find out when you simply encourage someone to let you listen on a more personal and deeper level.
“Listening and sharing are the cornerstones of collaborative learning. We can learn more working together than working alone.” – Excerpt from The ABC’s of How We Learn.
As you become a dynamic and active listener, your relationships with the people in your building will grow and strengthen, and you will be able to determine what each individual needs and act accordingly.
Listening is the place we start
Being able to listen in a middle school is only the beginning. We hear many things inside the sometimes crazy, always awesome middle schools across our country.
As middle level educators, we must be able to differentiate among what we should just hear and what we must pay close attention to. This is where highly effective teachers and administrators distinguish themselves.
Transformational leaders (whether teachers, students or administrators) use their ability to listen to not only grasp and understand a school culture, but to mold and shape it into the best school community that it can be.
As you begin your new school year, I challenge you to listen. Hear new ideas. Find out what is wrong in your schools. Most important, I challenge you to give your students, teachers, parents, and staff a voice by making sure they know they have your attention. A school where everyone listens is a school that can do great things. Students will soar and that must always be our goal.
School images: Kevin Jarett, Flickr CC
Mike Janatovich is an Assistant Principal for Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio. Prior to becoming a middle level administrator, Mike spent 10 years serving middle level students as a 7th and 8th grade science and social studies teacher. As a middle level advocate, Mike believes that educating the whole child is critical in ensuring academic success. Mike was a member of the ASCD 2015 Class of Emerging Leaders.