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Listening And Learning

I had just yelled in fury at a student who was engaged in bullying another student — the one behavior that I absolutely will not tolerate, and out of the myriad maladjusted behaviors I deal with daily the one that will get me the most angry. One of my most explosive and constantly challenging students (e.g. will curse at me and throw things if I do not immediately call on him each and every time he raises his hand) came up to me and softly said, placing his hand on my shoulder, “It’s okay, Mr. Anderson, you just have to let it go. It’s not worth it.”

Despite the fact that I was fuming at the moment, I stepped away from the conflict cycle I had been engaged in, and almost laughed outright. My anger began to dissipate as I breathed, thanked my concerned student, and thought, “Guess I must be teaching them something!”

I sometimes find (on the good days — the days when my heart and mind are still open and not bludgeoned shut from lack of sleep, constantly shifting schedules, paperwork, etc.) that I am the student in my own classroom, and that my students are the ones teaching me. They are teaching me how to teach them and what they most need. I just need to listen.

I am a second-year teacher in a self-contained special education fifth-grade classroom in the Bronx. As a Teaching Fellow, I am a career changer, inducted into the teaching ranks through an alternative certification route — I worked previously in both retail and hospitality management. Now just to clarify, when I say “management,” I don’t mean that I sat in some office and delegated underlings as I drank tea. I mean management as in I not only delegated workers to perform oft unsavory tasks such as cleaning bathrooms or stocking shelves, but I then performed that work alongside them. I’m happy to say that I may produce some of the cleanest bathrooms in the world (unfortunately, there’s no standardized test for that at the moment). And one of the central tenets I have learned from this management experience is that: 1) you have to work harder than those whom you ask to perform work; and 2) you have to be able to actively listen to those you work with in order to truly motivate them.

The field of education is undergoing a transformational shift that is both thrilling and frightening to be a part of. As adversarial as the conversations tend to be, the fact that our nation is actively discussing issues of public education in a highly publicized manner should be cause for hope. Those of us who engage in the challenging front-line fieldwork of classrooms know intuitively that we, the teachers, need to be an integral part of that conversation. In my posts I will be connecting my current classroom experience with my prior experience in management, seeking (perhaps quixotically) to bridge the oft adversarial divides and disconnect among business, policymakers, administration, and educators.

My perspective as a new educator comes specifically out of that of working with children with exceptional learning needs who often live in environments and undergo events filled with high stress. They bring many challenges everyday into my classroom. As I am learning to better listen to and understand their academic, social, and emotional needs, I find that I am also learning how to listen better to myself — and thus, become a more effective leader and educator.

I look forward to posting here and hearing your constructive feedback and comments.

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.

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