In the past decade, many schools and classrooms have received massive overhauls. From equipping students with their own laptops and iPads, installing electric whiteboards on classroom walls (not that those Smart Boards ever actually work), putting wheels on tables and chairs to make classroom seating flexible, to the prominence of innovative learning methods like Genius Hour, Project Based Learning, and STEM- school has changed in many ways. However, despite the evolution that has taken place, there are ideas and practices that are every bit as valuable today as they were 100 years ago.
While the tools and methods of a teacher are transforming, there are parts of this profession that seem to be molded to its bedrock. These aspects are the foundation that holds everything else, technology and innovation, up. There are truths young teachers can only learn from experience as well as from the wisdom passed down from master teachers, and no matter how many technologies are introduced or practices developed, this foundation remains constant.
This is the start of a series of posts about what should never change in education, the parts of teaching that are foundational and absolutely necessary in order for anything else to thrive. Only when this foundation is strong can we build innovative classrooms that prepare students for the constantly evolving world.
So, here’s the first teaching practice that should never die out: listening.
Let's start with a story.
My parents got divorced when I was in 6th grade. I was too busy playing in the woods, jumping on the trampoline, and listening to my Spice Girls cassette tapes to notice that they did not love each other and that my dad was sleeping on the couch a lot.
So when they said they were splitting up, I was devastated. The fact that there was a high number of divorces among my generation did nothing to soften the blow of a family being ripped apart. Pain usually came from getting stung by wasps or fighting with my brothers, but this pain hurt in a much more severe way, and it was suffocating and more than a little boy should have to handle.
Top that off with the fact that it was my first year of middle school.
I remember one of those overwhelming, lonely days in sixth grade when I stared into space in class trying not to think about what was going on at home, and I realized class was over and I was by myself in my desk.
I suddenly heard a voice in front of me say, "Trevor, are you alright?" It was my teacher, Mr. Peters. He was about 30 years old, loved basketball, and once said the word ‘damn’ in front of the class, so to me he was the epitome of ‘cool.’
I told him I was fine and started packing up my books. He sat down in the desk next to me and said again, "Trevor, are you alright?"
I looked at his eyes for a second and then looked back to the floor. After a moment, I looked back up and Mr. Peters was still looking at me. I tried again to tell him I was fine, but my voice choked up and my 11 year-old eyes filled with tears and I couldn't say anything. Whether it was some magical intuition or that my mom called him, I don't know, but Mr. Peters said, "Trevor, I heard your parents are getting divorced." I barely nodded my head to confirm. And then Mr. Peters said, "My parents split up in middle school too, and it was so hard. What’s it been like for you?”
For the next fifteen minutes, he let my 11 year-old self unload everything that was building up over that time. Despite the fact that his next group of students was piled up at his door in the hallway, wondering why they weren’t being allowed in, Mr. Peters sat there and listened to a boy who desperately needed someone to listen to him. And from then on I talked to him every day after class, usually just for a couple minutes. And each time he hardly said a word.
He just listened.
There was nothing constant about my home-life in middle school. It was sometimes good, and sometimes very painful. But regardless, Mr. Peters would listen to me every day. And since becoming a teacher myself, I know that he did not have time to listen to me every day.
But he did it anyway. And it saved me.
I’ve had many, many students who struggle. Whether it's divorce, depression, anxiety, or abuse, most of their stories are much harsher and more painful than mine. And I cannot relate to all of them or always have sage wisdom and advice to give.
But I can listen.
And there is a chance that listening might save someone. It might be exactly what they need to be able to move forward. When Mr. Peters started listening to me, I started loving my time in his class each day. I began to care so deeply for this man and my time with him. So much so that I began to listen to him when talked about the content of his class. I wrote my papers with excellence for him, always turned in my homework, and spoke up during class discussions. I became a better student when I walked in his room, and this is not an exaggeration, 20 years later, I am a teacher because of Mr. Peters.
No matter what innovation schools undergoe, what new technologies are introduced, or how much of a departure the modern classroom takes from the traditional one, students will still need people to listen to them. And teachers will always be one of the best kind of people to do so.