Shut up and just listen: taming the problem-solving teacher

Here it is Friday afternoon, and I find myself feeling out of sorts, wandering around the house, somewhat aimlessly. The reason? I’m obsessing over a class I had this week. Why? Well, I’m not proud of how I reacted and in fact, I’m tired of reacting this way.

Here’s the deal: at the start of class, I asked, as usual, how my student was doing. They answered honestly, “Not well, stressed out, actually. Of course, I asked why. In the wake of a series of unexpected employee departures, my student appeared dejected. I felt so bad for them.

As a teacher, it’s so easy to fall into my default problem-solving mode! Years in the school system have trained me such that when a student admits to a problem, I automatically start scanning my brain for strategies and solutions. The unfortunate result is unasked-for advice and/or superficial words of encouragement.

And therein lies the problem: I talk too much! Yet, I know full well that a good lesson begins with an attentive ear and insightful and empathetic observations. That’s when the magic occurs, and both teacher and student connect and co-create progress.  

“What are the keys to listening?”, I wondered.

I found some helpful pointers in the chapter called Don’t Let the Call Drop in Oren Jay Sofer’s book that I have already quoted in a previous post, Say what you mean: a mindful approach to nonviolent communication (Shambhala, 2018).  

1. Come to class with curiosity and openness.

In an ESL class, at least in my classes, I never know what we will end up talking about. Even if I have chosen a grammar focus or functional language point that I want to cover, the direction of the class will depend largely on the chemistry that occurs when the contact is made between my student and I.  And that’s where the curiosity and openness come into play.

Just recently a class that was supposed to be all about cuisine and food prep, took a dramatic turn to end up being all about suicide and funeral traditions. I could have just redirected the class back to the PowerPoint we had started the previous class, but I sensed my student wanted to talk about what had happened recently in his own life.

As we recapped at the end of the session, he remarked that he had learned new vocabulary and expressions relating to hospital procedures, human behavior, and celebrations of life.

Curiosity and openness prepare the heart for listening – and learning.

2. Nurture the conversation with silence

Do you remember the last time you closed your eyes to fully experience the warmth of the sunshine on your face, or fully drink in the vibrant energy of a shaded wood? Why do we close our eyes? Perhaps it is to allow ourselves to breathe in the moment and get in touch with that part of our soul that is truly receptive to the input.

The principle applies to the classroom as well. When the student I spoke about at the outstart opened up and courageously shared their humanity, I wish I’d had the presence of mind to honor them by pausing, breathing in and taking the time to identify what it is they were really sharing with me before I went into panic-mode and made a futile effort to make them feel better by talking mindlessly.

Looking back, it makes me think that probably the rest of the class would have been much more enjoyable since we would have connected, instead of continuing in a rather stiff fashion, simple going through the motions.

Connection fosters life and relationship.  

3. Reflect with empathy.

A reflection is a restatement of or inquiry about what’s been said to confirm understanding.

                                   (Oren Jay Sofer, 2018)

I like the way Sofer talks about conversation as a call and response, kind of like the way a pair of birds call and answer each other. Reflections can focus on restating words, identifying underlying feelings and acknowledging thoughts. A helpful reflection can be formulated as a question to encourage the person to continue the conversation.

For example, I recall a conversation this week where a student admitted that they were feeling a little frustrated with an intern who lacked initiative and drive. Instead of reeling off a series of ways to keep them in line, I could have paused and then responded with a comment like, “It sounds like your intern is giving you some extra work and you’re feeling a little tired of having to repeat yourself all the time.” They may have then answered with something like, “You better believe it! I don’t know what’s wrong with him!” I could have then just reflected, “So you’re looking for ways to help him be a little more self-sufficient?”

I’m sure the conversation would have been much more productive for my student! I could have even incorporated a mini lesson on modals of possibility like could, may, can! Reflecting would have elucidated the language lesson behind the life lesson! 

Ah well, lesson learned – or at least heard! This week, my intention will be to listen with an open and curious mind and take the time to react with empathy. But I wonder: how do you remember to listen before responding? I’m open to suggestions!

Keep learning – and listening! – Claire :O)

[Photo: Markus Lompa/Unsplash]

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