Know Better. Do Better.
I have read this in various forms on Twitter threads and it’s a notion often shared by my district’s PD Coordinator whom I greatly admire.
In his talk, How to Overcome Microwave Equity in the Leading Equity Summit’s Virtual Conference, Cornelius Minor adds a nuanced lens to this idea. When asked what he wishes he had known when he began his career as an educator, he replies, “Instead of what I wish I’d known, I think about what I wish I’d listened to.”
How often have we felt that we needed to hear a new idea several times before it actually sinks in or before we actually believe it? I know at times I have felt this sentiment. I feel challenged now, more than ever, to check myself. Am I actually listening? Especially when what am being told pushes or challenges my own beliefs or ways of seeing the world.
But he didn’t stop there. What REALLY sticks with me is his challenge to educators to broaden what forms of communication we listen to.
“Everything that a child does is a form of communication. Our first missteps are that we assume that all of those messages are going to come verbally or in a written form.”
As a teacher, I feel I always listen when kids come to talk to me about something. And I often begin class with some quiet writing time where I’ve asked questions to check in with how they are doing, or to reflect on some aspect of my class. Check. Done.
But what if we open our eyes to this notion that every aspect of a student’s’ behavior is a form of communication with us. What happens when we deeply listen there too?
“The way a child walks into the room; the way that a child wear’s their hoodie; the way they respond to my requests. All of those things are forms of communication. And if I am not paying attention to those things, I am missing the message…A student’s behavior is a form of communication.”
What if instead of being frustrated that kid #1 takes off his hood before entering class and kid #2 always wears it and then refuses to take it off when I ask him to, I instead spent time reflecting on what each of those students is communicating with me and built my relationship with each kid around learning more about that?
We are challenged to constantly ask ourselves,
“What is the difference between compliance and actual communication?”
He explains that we have to intentionally work towards decentralizing power because,
“No kid is going to tell me their truth if I am holding all the power.”
Finally, a call to action to each of us:
“What messages do we communicate to students through our affective responses to them? Often we articulate words that say we value kids, but then engage in behaviors that do the opposite. WE must work to ensure that our words are in alignment with our actions.”
This notion that often, unknowingly, our words our not in alignment with our actions reminds me of the notion of “discretionary spaces” which Deborah Lowenberg Ball and Amber T Willis discussed at CMC-North this year in their talk, “(How) Can Mathematics Teaching Disrupt Racism and Oppression.”
Though a detailed analysis of student/teacher/class interactions, they show how any of our common “best” practices as teacher, whole class discussions, calling on students to show their thinking at the board, etc., will can reproduce patterns of racism and marginalization unless we are constantly and consistently reflecting on the impact of our words and affective responses to students-not just the one who is speaking, but everyone else as well. In this whole class discussion there were 59 student/student/teacher interactions in just over 2 minutes.
As educators are we thinking constantly and intentionally about status, student agency, and the spoken and unspoken messages students are communicating with us (and to each other) in each of these countless discretionary spaces?
As I return to the classroom for the first time in 2020, I enter with a new definition of what it means to deeply listen to my students. This quote, engraved in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington DC, applies to changes large and small that I hope to make this year as an educator. I hope you will each question and challenge me and hold me accountable as this new year marches on.