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Listen and learn

Listen and learn. That seems to be the traditional formula for teaching and learning in classrooms across the country, especially in the upper grades. Listen to the expert in the room. Lean on their every word, drinking it all in with the hope that some of that expertise will rub off: enough for the student to feed it back on a predictable and pretty standard assessment that will serve as a degree of evidence that they “learned.”

I’ll debate the wisdom of this approach on a different day, in a different article. But, for the purposes of this post, I want to turn the notion of who should be the “listener” and who should be the “learner” on its ear.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me or who has followed my work that I would be a vocal advocate of adults listening to kids. If there is one simple thing that we overwhelmingly neglect in American schoolhouses it is soliciting the voices of students. Adults assume we know what’s best and what strategies will serve our students well. However, frequently our assumptions prove inaccurate. When we give the megaphone to the children, they will invariably have a great deal to teach us.

So, adults . . . listen and learn.

I came upon this opinion piece very recently. It is authored by Noa Gutow-Ellis, a high school student from Houston, Texas. She has a lot to say about the qualities of an outstanding teacher.

“Everyone can think back to their years as a student and recall at least one teacher that stood out as a truly outstanding teacher. Weʼve all had that teacher at some point in our lives. It can be really difficult to pinpoint what makes a teacher remarkable. We know it when we see it or experience it, but putting our experience into words can be challenging.

1. Teachers that care about us both in and out of the classroom

Whether cheering for us on the field or applauding our curtain call, students appreciate teachers that show us they not only care about how weʼre doing in their class, but out of it, too. I especially love being able to go talk to my teachers about life and other things not related to the subject at hand. Itʼs a great feeling knowing that when you donʼt want to talk to your parents, thereʼs another adult that you can talk to and trust. It would take way more than two hands to count the number of students at my school that keep in touch with the teachers during the summer. Whether emailing or meeting for coffee, lunch or frozen yogurt the student-teacher relationships are unmatched. Having an exceptional relationship with teachers has us looking forward to school every morning and working harder in class to show the teachers we adore that we care.

2. Teachers that are beyond passionate

The best teachers are not always the ones teaching the core classes. I took a film appreciation class in 8th grade and learned more information in a single semester than Iʼve learned during an entire year of math. The teacher was fantastic because he was incredibly passionate about film studies. When imagining a teacher discussing Shakespeare, many would picture a bunch of teenagers staring out into space, barely listening. But, when Mr. D talked, no heads went down and no eyes wandered. Everyone was focused intently on what he told us because his passion for the subject was contagious. I admire teachers that are so passionate about their subject that they inspire students to look further into it, ask questions, and leave the class with a sense of wonder about learning something genuinely new and interesting.

3. Teachers that plan unforgettable lessons

My 6th grade Life Science teacher was an incredible teacher. Her lessons were the type that stuck with us long after leaving her class. Each lesson had a lot of thought put into it and was obviously well planned without making us feel as though we were robots following a plan down to the last second. I would go home and tell my parents about the exciting things we did in class on a near-daily basis. Even though I took her class nearly four years ago, I vividly remember the fun we had dissecting frogs – she floated from table to table, pointing out cool things, answering an immeasurable amount of questions, and comforting the squeamish. She loved us and we loved her. Her immense amount of passion, knowledge, and love made her an outstanding teacher.

4. Teachers that arenʼt afraid to be challenged

I had an unforgettable teacher during my freshman year of high school. He consistently challenged and debated with us in class and welcomed the opportunity for us to disagree with him. In a society where students are always expected to accept what the authority figure says, having a teacher who allowed us to challenge him was an eye-opening experience. No matter the topic, if we had a different opinion, he wanted to hear it. At first, it was strange to debate with a teacher and a bit upsetting that he was not shy about pointing out a flaw in our argument. But, by the end of the year, I appreciated having a teacher that I could be completely honest with about the subject, knowing he would bring up a point that would have me thinking about my argument in an entirely new way.

In the end, the best teachers arenʼt always the ones doling out the best grades. Rather, the teachers that challenge, inspire, and truly care for their students are the ones that make a lasting impact.”

If I were still in the classroom, I would be sufficiently moved by the authentic wisdom of this young woman to conduct a personal inventory of how I measure up against her observations. Do kids see me as interested and supportive? Do I communicate to them a genuine passion for my work? Am I creative in the construction of compelling and relevant learning experiences? And, finally, how willing am I to be vulnerable, to listen and learn from my students while engaging with them in honest, if not contradictory, dialogue?

Or, do my students see me as an aloof, pedantic “sage on the stage?”

If I were still a building principal, I would reflect on Ms. Gutow-Ellis’ opinion and ask myself: “What can I do, as a leader, to promote the kind of culture that allows for this type of quality interaction, mutual respect and genuine relationships between, and among, my students and my staff? Do I model these attributes in my leadership role?”

I submit, that once again if given the opportunity, students have a lot to tell us about their educational experiences. Let this young scholar serve as a keen example. Further, once we have heard what the kids have to say, we have an obligation; personally morally, and professionally, to listen; to actively and acutely listen. And then, to act.

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