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The Value of Listening – a 45 Year Perspective

The Value of Listening – a 45 Year Perspective

In my previous post, I talked about what I called the ‘Power of Listening’ skills. I called it Part I because what I have learned about the impact of listening skills on children’s learning and how that impacts their overall self- esteem could be an entire book. It was in my third year of teaching that I learned the most about the role good listening skills plays in academic and social development.

Before I tell you the insights I gained in year three, you will need some backstory. I started my teaching career as a 4th, 5th and 6th grade math specialist. The first two years I taught two classes of each grade level every day. The children were tested and divided into high, middle and low group classes. Being the youngest of the team, the other teachers informed me that the high group class would be awesome. Everyone would be excited about math. The middle group class would be pretty blah. Kids would be slumped in their desks, there would not be a lot of problems, but also not a lot of excitement. The low group class would be the toughest. The kids had either behavioral or learning issues. They would give me a run for my money. My coworkers were spot on with their descriptions. From the start, grouping did not set right with me, but I had always wanted to be a teacher and I loved my job. Fortunately, my first year went well.

The early days

If I had to describe my second year in a word, I would say it was a ‘nightmare.’ I literally had bad dreams that entire year. I still remember one because I had it repeated multiple nights in a row. It was actually a little funny, and also very telling of the frustration I had. One of the 5th grade boys from the middle group was in my shopping cart and throwing things out as I put them in. I did not need a dream specialist to tell me what this dream was about. This was the kid who caused daily disruption with constant silly comments, causing the others to not pay attention to what I was saying. He was mild compared to the 6th grader who drew weapons on his folder and labeled it, Things to kill Rhoten with.(I was Rhoten 😊 ) or the ‘low group of the 25 boys who would not stay in their seats and threw golf ball-sized spit balls at me while I was writing on the chalkboard. Had I not had such a love of children and a strong desire to teach, I would not have gone back for a third year. I should also note that since we were departmentalized, each of these students had a homeroom teacher, a gym teacher, a music teacher, an art teacher, and some of them a special services teacher. I was not the only one who had issues with these children. The one thing I had that the others did not have was that because we grouped for math, I had the kids with issues in one group. 

Before going into my third year I knew I had to figure out a way to take charge. One of the best things that happened was that the enrollments were on the decline and we no longer had six classes of each grade level. This meant that the math classes could not be grouped according to ability. I had a theory that maybe I could get all of the kids to ‘act like’ those ‘high group kids. I came up with a plan and it worked!

Each student was given four grades in Math: Basic Facts; Computation; Problem Solving; Work Habits. On the first day I announced to each class that everyone already had an ‘A’ in work habits. The difference was immediate. You could have heard a pin drop as I explained to them what they needed to do to keep the ‘A.’ The deal was that all they needed to do is pay attention. I went on to tell them that I believed that I was a great teacher and that meant that if they had good work habits, I would be able to teach them so that they would also get good grades in the other three areas.

Getting everyone to pay attention was the first piece. The second piece was that I would give my lesson. Then, they would have what I called a ‘quickie quiz.’ I put a problem on the overhead and when they had solved the problem they got out of their seat and came and showed it to me. If they knew how to do it, they could go back to their seat and start their homework. If they did not solve it, they went back to their seat to listen to more instruction. The quickie quiz showed me where each of my students were having problems so I could address what they had not understood for the class. 

At first, some of the kids, presumably those who would have been in the ‘low group’ had we still been grouping, took a long time to ‘get it.’ BUT, I would not let them quit! Even if it took most of the class time, they all DID get it. AND, if they had good work habits for the entire time, they did not have homework. No homework was probably as big a motivator as was the ‘A’ for the class.

It did not take long before everyone was ‘getting it’ with very little additional instruction. This included the kids who qualified for special services. Why? Because they realized that I was not going to quit working with them and what I had told them was true: “If they listened the first time, they would learn it faster!”

This plan not only worked for all my classes my third year. It worked for all my classes my fourth and fifth year. (I did not have a sixth year because the declining enrollments resulted in me being laid off.)  In case you are wondering if maybe it was just that my second year was exceptionally tough, I should tell you that I was always a part of meetings with the other teachers. Kids who were doing well in my class were still struggling in the other classes. It was true that the kids understood that they learned more because they listened. AND, it was also true that I adapted how I taught when I saw those quickie quizzes.

The real lesson from 45 years of experience is that teaching and learning both require that the teacher and the learner work together. The learner’s responsibility is to focus on listening – to simply pay attention.

For my next blog post, I’ll talk more about the teacher’s responsibility as that piece relates to listening – to also paying attention. 

Be sure to check out this related blog post:

CrabbieMasters Beat the Summer Slide by Sharpening Their Listening Skills


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