Last night I was in a graduate class where we had to read an article written by a Canadian teacher from northern Manitoba. He was proud of his 20-year teaching career and was looking forward to Parent Night that evening. His next appointment would be with the father of a boy in his class from the Cree tribe. Matthew had not been doing well in class, and his teacher was all prepared to confront the father to see what he would do about Matthew’s joking in class and unwillingness to learn.
The conversation did not go as expected. “How can you say that he can’t learn? He’s learned lots!” shouted the father. Then he proceeded to tell the teacher how Matthew had learned skills related to fishing and trapping that were way beyond the young boy’s years. Matthew also was a good artist.
“I had tried all kinds of methods to reach into Matt’s psyche,” the teacher reflected afterward. “I used basal readers, SRA Language Labs High-Interest/Low-Vocabulary reading series. I made him listen to prerecorded tapes while having the book in front of him. I threatened, I pleaded, I bribed – all to no avail. What I didn’t really attempt was that which would come from the boy himself. His father provided the key that unlocked it all. With this new-found knowledge, I began to work with Matthew and – wonder of wonders – he began to learn.”
Matthew’s teacher learned the hard lesson, even after 20 years in the classroom, that he had not been an empathic listener. Once he realized the error of his ways, he did a course correction and became a much better observer and listener.
“Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again. When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.”
Those words are the lyric to a well-known song in the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable. In history, mistakes are made when people hear but do not listen. The same is true in the classroom and in our personal lives.
From 1995 until 2000, I lived in Hong Kong and traveled throughout Asia. That is when I learned this Chinese proverb, which I will never forget: “To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well and is as essential to all true conversation.”
In the classroom, I will be speaking. But, if I’m a good teacher, I also will be doing a lot of listening.