There is a Jewish concept I learned in my meager religious education: we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. As a child, I felt the power of those words, imagining the bodies of generations of people, holding others as they balanced on those below, small children at the top, nearing the treetops. This image gave me both solidity in my idea of what it meant to be a growing human, and at the same time provided a vision for my future as a parent, teacher, and elder on this planet.
Jon Kabbat Zinn breathed new life to those words for me as he described what otherwise had been a somewhat frozen thought. He described the idea that as humans, we hold a full array of potentials as our lives develop, but we are potentially held back or moved forward by the mere fact of our histories. He described the simple act of learning to speak as a distinctly human capacity that is bound by hearing others. Our brains are patterned to learn to speak, but in the absence of human voices, the capacity for speech cannot develop.
When we realize that our lives in many ways are bound by the past, we create in ourselves the choices to celebrate our gifts, rage against inequities, or both. We bring forth energies–both to expand and restrict our ideas of what the future hold for us. Will we be generous, with the idea of holding others up to the light, or will we hold onto the rage of deprivation, climbing on others to better our own perception of worth? Our lives are intricately bound, for good or for bad.
As one who has spent a life among children, as a parent, a grandparent, and as an educator, I feel grateful to be able to build a scaffold for others. Working and playing with children, I feel the joy but also the responsibility of sharing lessons about living in community. How does one do that? How do we convey the importance of living in community with others in a way that brings everyone up?
Kelly Priest, an expert in social emotional education, is always a fount of knowledge about building communities. I once discussed with her the idea that some teachers seem to connect deeply with children. It’s a phenomenon I have witnessed but had no words to describe. I shared a story about Dolores Patton, a fifth grade teacher at the time, who was teaching a small group of children. There was a “glue” in her lesson, her focus on each child. Her way of talking to the children with deep respect for their ideas was palpable. Kelly and I both reflected on the way Sherry Varon, a gifted teacher with whom we both worked, also embodied the trait. I had seen it many times, but had no words to describe it.
Kelly ask if I had heard the phrase “authentic listening.” I had not. She was shocked that a common idea she had learned in her counseling training was not part of teacher preparation. Authentic listening as it turns out, is the phenomenon I observed many times as a teacher and principal, a skill some teachers held. Those are the teachers who develop a strong sense of community in their classroom. Their classrooms are alive with learning. Children take risks in their safe environment.
Authentic listening, it appears, is the act of honestly valuing what a person says and staying in that person’s presence as you thoughtfully respond. You will know it when you hear it.
Authentic listening, I have come to find out, is akin to the medium in which speech for a new baby develops. The baby holds the potential to speak, but the skill of speech is dependent on the sounds of speech modeled in the child’s presence.
So it is with creating a classroom community of learners. Children come to us able to learn. They have the potential for great things! If their daily lives are filled with rules and the expectation of compliance, their potentials become stilted.
The teachers who strive to authentically listen to kids, to create a bond of appreciation, begin the act of creating a space for the development of community, of belonging. Children hear loudly and clearly: ” I believe in you! You are wanted here! You have the capacity to learn well and to contribute to our classroom!”
Authentic listening forms the scaffold on which all learning takes place. Authentic listening works for sharing content information, for it allows us to accurately examine the child’s thinking and understanding of concepts. When we listen this way, we allow children to examine ideas with objectivity, and to cultivate the ability to make decisions that create community-strengthening behaviors. What could be a better tool for teaching?