Listening Through Distractions

Can I listen carefully to one student in a class of 24, hear what he or she is communicating, and respond in a way that shows I understand?

Even when the exchange is brief, this is a challenge.

Pencils drop, students speak to others near them, hands raise with requests for the bathroom or clarification.  And coinciding with these external events is my internal dialogue: how much times is left in the period? Remember to close with the question you thought of…Who is working, who isn’t?  Why?. This internal and external noise is part of the flow of the classroom, especially when I give students chunks of time to work while I conference with individuals.

The classroom and the students within it are a microcosm of modern society: multiple forces fighting for my attention, all with value, each with a different voice.  First, I decide whom to devote a burst of attention towards, then I have the challenge of maintaining that attention.

Developing the skill of listening in a busy environment is essential for me. I don’t always succeed, but I strive to stay aware of how well I’m doing.

At times, I’ve thought that taking so much time to conference with individual students is the wrong approach. As I mentioned above, 100% of students don’t stay on task 100% of the time while I do this.  This is something I’m honest with myself about.  These are two alternatives:

Option 1:  Change the class structure so that conferencing is not required or simply not part of the class. Students listen to me drone on in a whole-class lecture format, which leads to boredom and/or disruptive behavior as students lose their attention.


Option 2: Students work independently or in groups, as I act as “overseer” or “supervisor” to their work. I avoid having individual conversations with small groups or students, because then I can’t keep an eye on every student at all times.

As with so many other decisions that I find both difficult and “right,” the best choice for me involves awareness, trust and surrender of total control.

So, taking the time to sit next to individual students, listen to them carefully, ask a few questions, and respond to them meaningfully is a “non-negotiable” for me.  And with things like exercising, eating right, or having conversations with certain people, it’s even more important to do when I feel that it may be too difficult (i.e. in a large class, in a class where some students are talkative, etc.).

What better good can I try to provide students in today’s distracted society than an example of what it means to stop, pay attention, and listen?


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