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“I Don’t Care,” Part III: Meet Ms. Ears

In a previous post I introduced the problem of creating a classroom environment in which students care about their work. Today I would like to look at another successful approach, that of Ms. Ears.

Ms. Ears works with my class for one period a week, at the end of Friday. This is a loud, jovial, excited and generally unfocussed time to spend with my class. Friday is a day of games and celebrations, in my classroom, and Ms. Ears has to channel that celebratory energy into a 50-minute writing lesson. I am always impressed, then, to see my classroom so quiet and intent during her lessons, listening both to her and, crucially, to each other. When Ms. Ears is in the classroom, my children seem to be not only focused but also invested. In other words, they seem to care.

Ms. Ears creates an environment in which children know that their voices are heard, considered, weighed, possibly even judged by her and the other students. When Ms. Ears calls on a student, she gets none of the throwaway responses that I sometimes hear: the mumbling, the one-word answer, the thoughtless pause, the embarrassed giggle, the sidelong look to a friend, etc. When she calls on a student she elicits a careful response. She does this with her ears.

Ms. Ears has the same marvelously emotive face that I have seen on all of my favorite elementary school teachers. Each word that enters through her ears plays out across her face, affecting her eyes and nose, especially her mouth. And in this facial display she demonstrates to my students what considerate listening looks like, and so encourages the same kind of consideration in them. More important, she makes explicit to the speaking child that she is living out his or her words. She listens completely, her thoughts are determined by what she hears.

This is a powerful reason for a child to care. The experience of being so actively listened to, of affecting a grown-up with words, is an experience that both refines the student and does honor to the child. Active, visible listening shows the child, in a way that words cannot, that school is for the student. Moreover, active listening challenges the student by revealing the purpose of learning: if you want to speak powerfully, we say in actively listening, then you must learn! If you want to convince me, or the other children in this classroom, then learn to explain yourself! In this way we turn our classroom into both a challenge and a celebration.

This is why the active listening strategy, exemplified in Ms. Ears, is so important to beginning teachers. A major beginning mistake is to separate challenge and celebration, to set a task and then reward the product. In active listening, I believe, the beginning teacher can start to combine challenge and celebration. Like anything, this is a skill that takes time, but I try by beginning my day with a refrain: “My greatest tool today will be my ears.”

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.