How to Talk So Students Will Listen and Listen so Students will Talk

This week I messed up.  I got so frustrated at a student who was opting out that I didn’t stop to think about why.

Let me take a step back.

Our school’s mental health counselor often tells me that I should become a social worker.  She is always amazed at what my students tell me about their personal lives.  While flattered, in reality it makes me angry that this is seen as rare from a math teacher.  I am constantly thinking about what it means to teach for equity.  Creating a safe and trusting classroom where students are willing to risk telling me about the hardest parts of their lives is a really important part of their academic success.  If you spent only a few minutes in my classroom, you might never know that this happens because as I am teaching, I rarely pause the academics.  However, it’s the in-between moments that make the difference.  I believe these in-between moments are an important part of Culturally Responsive Teaching.

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 10.01.48 AMA student is doodling on his arm while the rest of the class is taking notes.  In the moment, I tell the student to stop and not get behind on their notes.  He picks up his notebook and gets back to work . But later in class, I go over, sit next to the kid, and ask if everything is ok.  I say that I noticed you’re really distracted today and want to check in.  Sometimes he says, “Nah I’m fine.” and sometimes he says, “My parents are thinking about getting a divorce and I’m scared.”  (And yes, too often he says, “I stayed up too late playing Fortnight last night.)

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 10.00.16 AMA girl is chasing someone down the hallway when she’s supposed to be lined up outside my door.  In the moment, I yell and tell her to get in line. But when the class comes in, and I’m giving high 5s at the door, I pull her aside, wait til everyone is in, and ask her if everything is ok.  Sometimes she says, “Nah, I’m fine” But sometimes she says that this kid just called her a bitch or that this other girl posted a picture of her on social media which she wants deleted.  And sometimes she says, I really like this boy and I don’t want my friends telling anyone.

When students misbehave, in small and large ways,  I am very strict in the moment to get them back on track, and try to later follow up to better understand why.  And often, kids tell me all sorts of personal things.  And often, I don’t have time in math class to really listen.  So when they tell me things, big or small, I then offer a time during my prep or at lunch or after school when they can come back to tell me more.

But this week, I messed up.  I have a student who has a lot going on at home including a relative who is dying.  And this student is opting out of being a student, a learner, a community member, in every way possible.  He has been opting out all year.  I have tried so many things, meeting with his mom; daily texts to his mom giving her a positive about his behavior; daily behavior goals with positive incentives chosen by the kid; checking in with his other teachers and his counselor; having a circle of support with him, led by the restorative justice counselor, to help him see what a wonderfully talented kid he is and helping him see how he has a community of adults at school who value him and are here to support him.

I messed up, because every day this week I got upset about his behavior, and the various ways he’s opting out.  I gave consequences.  But in those in between moments, I didn’t ask him how he’s doing.  I used the in between moments to tell him how disappointed I was in him instead of asking him how it’s feeling to be back at school after missing a bunch of it.  He’s a kid who has told me nothing about his life outside of school.  While I know a lot about him, it’s not from him telling me.  And that is my failure.  I need to take a deeper breath.

Taking more of these deep breaths, focusing on the ‘in-between moments’ in my math classroom as much as the teaching of mathematics, is my focus for the second half of this year.   For #TMC19 (Twitter Math Camp 2019 which is in Berkeley in July…yes!) I am thrilled to be presenting on this very topic.  Marian Dingle, an amazing elementary school teacher in Georgia who I met last summer at TMC, suggested the idea of interviewing students and families to learn about what they need from their teachers in order to be successful in school.  It feels so powerful to do this in a Berkeley school to present as an equity-strand workshop at an international teacher conference hosted in Berkeley.  I am so excited to be doing this work with my students this spring and hope that their experiences and their voice can become the beginning of a deep conversation with teachers from all over the world.

In the meantime, please watch this video, “Our Culture Our Schools-Culturally Responsive Education in New York City” made by the Coalition for Educational Justice 

This work is so important.  While I will still mess up, I will hopefully mess up less often.  And while it’s easy to talk about how to best teach that upcoming lesson on fractions, the work expressed in this video has just as big of an impact on how much students actually learn from that fraction lesson.

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2 thoughts on “How to Talk So Students Will Listen and Listen so Students will Talk

  1. My God. I wish I had a teacher like you back in my pre K-12 years. I struggled with selective mutism, social anxiety, and depression through those years so I never participated in class, I couldn’t make friends, and I went home to one parent who worked long hours and another who was addicted to drugs and alcohol. There was a lot of domestic violence and anger and fear and trauma. I had no one to tell because I couldn’t make friends and teachers would just say “you need to talk” and leave it at that. I was very academic and could ace every class except math (I was too scared to ask questions when I didn’t understand something, so it wasn’t until college that I understood basic algebra and eventually made it through the calculus series), so no one really cared to check in with me–they figured she’s doing good with her work, she’s fine. I’ve since been working on my fear of the world after stumbling through some mania and psychosis in college and now work as a mental health peer counselor.

    The fact that you are taking the time to check in with your students and the fact that they are comfortable enough to be receptive to your genuine curiosity is a beautiful thing. The fact that you take the time to also reflect on where you could have pushed a little more to understand one kid shows that you truly have a place in your heart where these kids stay. Everyone has been a teenager but not everyone has been every type of teenager. Not everyone has struggled with trauma or addicted parents or sexual abuse or cyber bullying or divorce or upper class living or lower class living–my point being it’s important to recognize kids go through a lot these days and most often don’t have proper outlets for it or the proper emotional maturity to understand what is happening to them. To have a trusted adult near them makes all the difference. YOU are amazing. Sorry for the long comment, I just had to give you the recognition you deserve. A+.

  2. Thanks. On so many levels. As I said in the post, it makes me angry that it’s not a given that all educators would look past a behavior to think about and make space to listen to students to really know whey they are acting as they are. Being a mental health peer counselor sounds like work where you can bring your life experiences to those who you work with. What a gift. I have a lot of students now who sound similar to how you were as a child. It would be so easy to not check in with them as they are quiet and can easily stay off the radar. Thank YOU for the work you’re doing.

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