IN:SIGHT Teaching As Listening

November 17th, 2017—For a story to be told about teaching there must be a person on the other end listening.  In my last post I wrote about the art of storytelling as articulated by J.D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy.” In this post I want to explore the art of listening as described by the southern novelist David Joy in his essay, “Digging in the Trash.” When asked at a book signing what he thought would help the people he knows in Appalachia, Joy responded:

Just listen. The truth is we live in a world where we don’t listen to people anymore. So often we’re just waiting for the next opening to respond. What we need to realize is that sometimes people don’t need advice. Sometimes people just need to be heard. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give someone is just to keep our mouth shut and let them empty themselves into our hands. When they’re finished, we don’t need to do anything with what they’ve given us. We just need to show them that we’re holding it for them till they can catch their breath.

Joy’s suggestion to “just listen” seems like sound advice to me.  What a gift to give a teacher, listening to stories with no purpose other than to hear what is being shared.  No agenda.  No outcome. No advice giving.  No need to pre-think how to fix the situation.  Just listen in a way that creates a space where the teacher can empty out emotions, understandings, questions, wonderment, or frustrations.  The listener embracing the honor of holding those stories with integrity and humility for however long it takes the teacher to “catch their breath”, pick up their craft knowledge, and reengage the complexities of teaching.  Here are some questions to ask a teacher that might invite a round of storytelling and deep listening.

  • What aspect of your day left you breathless and full of wonder?
  • Fill in the blank with a metaphor; teaching is like a _________.  And why?
  • Tell the story of a student who changed your approach to teaching.
  • If you could thank an influential teacher, what would you tell that person about why you became a teacher?

Joy’s advice seems easy to practice when at least two people are present; the teacher and the listener. But does his guidance hold true if the only person present is the teacher?  The form of listening Joy describes is even more important when practiced as self-listening; when the teacher listens with intention to self-stories. When the organ of listening is no longer the ears but instead is the heart, the source of deep wisdom.  Like partner listening, self-listening is best practiced without an agenda, outcome, or advice giving. What matters is a willingness to trust the inner-voice communicating about the call to teach; a desire that is characteristically soft-spoken, gentle, truthful, and persistent.  The gift of self-listening is an invitation to empty out into your own hands; to hold the deep truths about your teacher-self until you catch your breath and are ready again to take on the role of teacher.  This is no easy task as most teachers are skilled at practicing a form of humility that borders on denial; a resistance to praise and the naming of talents and ability.  Here are some questions to ask that might elicit a response from your inner teacher who in my experience is more than willing to engage in conversation. Your job; just listen.

  • When you are struggling with the question of whether or not to keep teaching, why do you come back?
  • In what ways does teaching encourage you to be more fully yourself?
  • What aspects of teaching fill you with an overflowing sense of wonder and awe?
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