The Magic of Listening

by | Jan 15, 2024 | Articles

A thunder cloud of failure was all I could see, feel, taste, and breathe. I had been so excited to be with these new-to-me three and four-year-olds from the first day of a brand-new school year. The staggered entry to school gave me four whole days to get to know eight children at a time until on the fifth day all the children arrived together.

During those first four days the children’s personalities, interests and needs were at the fore of my mind and senses. I glimpsed their excitement and wonder about this big-deal place called school. I also glimpsed the outcomes of young lives lived inside a pandemic.

Half-way through the third week of school, I knew I was a sham; a failure masquerading as a teacher of young children. Already, I had started to turn away from the incessant crying of two children who seemed to only feel secure if they were in my arms. I spoke sternly to the child who seemed incapable of thinking of anything other than drawing adult attention to herself. I let go of trying to include a young child who presented with sensitives to touch, eye contact, and who lashed out frequently at anyone (child or adult) who stood in the way of her desires. I lost patience with the child who repeatedly stomped off in a huff with his arms folded like crossbones across his chest because there was no Minecraft to play at school. And the child with speech difficulties who seemed to hide behind the medical mask that covered the lower half of her face? She slipped through the day in silence while the children who had no experience taking turns listening to one another filled the room with noise. And then there were the children whose brains seemed wired for rapid movement – as if their school experience was likened to living inside a cartoon or video – turning and wandering toward anything that moved within their sightline.

In the staffroom, the advice was unanimous: “Be firm! Children need to learn how to do as their told!”

Desperate, I tried on their advice, this mantel of authority, of ‘no guff’, of ‘I have power over you.’ I watched as my teaching partner similarly swept her cloak of teacher superpower over her shoulders. ‘Behaviours’ escalated. Now we had a ‘runner’.

Tears filled my eyes. I went home acutely aware that I should not be teaching. I was a failure. The classroom was filled with stress for adults and teachers alike. My ideals had vanished. Our goals of well-being, belonging, engagement, and learning had evaporated like morning dew in a desert.

In that arid emotional space, I reached for an inspirational book I had been reading by the indigenous poet Richard Wagamese called Embers.

“Nothing in the universe ever grew from the outside in.”

The truth of these words held me. I read on…

“I like that. It keeps me grounded. It reminds me to be less concerned with outside answers and more focused on the questions inside….”

My angst and self-doubt wobbled. My perspective shuffled its feet and found slightly softer ground. My desire to be a ‘good teacher’, to demonstrate my ability to ‘manage’ the classroom, I realized, had almost completely cemented over my fundamental belief that teaching is a pedagogy of listening; of recognizing that the words, silences, body language, facial expressions, drawings, mark-making, activities and interactions of each and every child are their languages. Each child in my classroom is speaking their feelings, their truths, their worries, their excitements, their wonderings. I had been so busy telling them to sharpen their shoulders so that they could fit neatly into the box of routines and expectations at school, that I turned off my ears and eyes to listen. I had forgotten to question my interpretation of what they were trying so desperately hard to tell me.

“… It’s the quest for those answers that will lead me to the highest possible version of myself.”

I don’t need to be a teacher who can successfully demonstrate behaviour management techniques. I need to be a teacher who stops to question what children are saying through their actions. I need to be a teacher who stops to question my intentions. From this space of listening and questioning we can together create well-being, belonging, engagement and learning in ways that are meaningful and lasting.

“Nothing grows from the outside in.”

A pedagogy of listening has no outside rules that can be applied. Instead, it grows from within, through an open and reflective spirit; through an intention to observe and question, to be open and honest with myself, and to recognize moments of hope and joy in each and every child.

I closed my eyes and re-opened them ready now to see differently. I opened my ears to hear. I looked inward to invite my whole being to question.

Together I knew we could open ourselves to a way of being that would ground us in listening — listening to children, listening to ourselves and helping children listen to one another. Together we could question our interactions, intentions, and goals. We could cultivate a responsive classroom environment that would hold one another with understanding and reciprocity.  Of course there would still be growing pains, but those pains would give us pause to reflect and grow. ‘Things that aren’t working’ have the potential to develop into insight, opportunity, and wisdom.

In the end, those growing pains became the spark that lit our path forward with purpose and joy.