The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Learning to Listen

Listening is an interesting concept. From its etymological roots, it means the same thing as hearing, but that isn’t actually how we use the word. To hear is to “perceive with the ear the sound made by someone or something.” To listen, on the other hand, is to “give one’s attention to a sound.”

“But wait,” some of you are thinking, “isn’t that essentially the same thing?”

No, not it isn’t.

There are a lot of sounds in the world around me that I perceive with the ear that I don’t give any attention to: the trains that go by my house several times a day, the ticking of a clock in the background, the sound of chairs or desks moving in the classroom, the buzzing in my left ear that is a result of my tinnitus. If I were to give my attention to these things, these sounds, all day long, it would drive me up the wall. So I learn to ignore them as much as possible. (I still notice them, of course. I just don’t make them the focus on my attention.)

Listening, on the other hand, requires me to focus on other people or other things. Listening involves hearing the sounds and responding to them appropriately. When I listen to a song, I hear the music but I think about it, too. I contemplate my feelings. Some music makes me feel excited. Some makes me feel sad. Some music is calming. I also listen to signals, such as the buzzing of the fire alarm, the blaring of the severe weather siren, the ringing of the bell to alert me to the start of the day, the start of lunch, and the end of the afternoon.

When it comes to listening, the biggest focus is listening to people. I am hearing what they are saying and responding appropriately? I am thinking about their words, or am I thinking about what I want to say next? Listening to students is even harder, because they often use words that mean one thing to mean but mean something completely different to them, and it is my responsibility to decode their messages.

I’ve been reading a book about this very issue. It is called How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. Interestingly enough, this book isn’t actually a “how to” book. It is more of a “this is what we have learned works well, so if you want to try it how, here are some ideas” book. I am not even done with the book (in fact, I am barely into the second chapter) and much of what I’ve read has seemed fairly intuitive, but reading it has reminded me of the traps that adults fall into when we think we are listening to students. One of the biggest traps is trying to solve problems and give them the answers. We do this to each other, too.

I ask my students to reflect each week on what they can do better. Instead of talking at others, I want to focus on being better at talking with them. I think I do an okay job with this already, but I want to do better. So I have set a personal goal for myself: I need to start talking less and listening more. I need to let my students know that I am not only hearing their words, but I am giving them the attention they deserve. I also need to let my colleagues, my friends, and my family know the same thing. I found this quote and felt it was quite appropriate to this topic and a great way to end this post and the week:

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