Learning When to Listen

One teacher explains the value of knowing when to identify with your students when they tell you about their lives—and when to be quiet and listen.

When the student made eye contact with me and said, “Shut up, bitch,” I wasn’t surprised. I almost wondered what had taken her so long. The words that fell from her mouth for 90 minutes every day were usually much worse.

The language itself hardly touched me, but my heart lunged in my chest. Her defenses were the same as mine, transmuted into the kind of expression available to a 15-year-old girl with a lifetime of trauma and uncertainty already behind her. How could I tell her that I knew her spiky exterior, her insistence on not caring (not one bit!), and her need to be entirely self-reliant because I shared those qualities? I’m far more likely to look down at the table in front of me, staring hard at woodgrain in silence with clenched teeth. To coldly say, “I’m sorry, but I disagree.” To ball up my fists and dig my nails into my palms under a desk. But the anger is familiar all the same.

How could we move into the place where I could stand with her and tell her I see her? With this student, I did not learn quickly enough. My desire to connect led me to stress the innate qualities we shared rather than find a way to honestly acknowledge our respective experiences. And every time I kept seeking our common ground—stressing only our similarities—I failed to acknowledge just how different our experiences were. In my year working as her student teacher, we developed our own rapport. But I never found a real way to understand her better. 

After my pre-service work at her school ended, I took a job 900 miles away. Most of the students I began working with this year are new to the United States, often coping with trauma and instability. Rather than relying only on commonalities among our classroom community, we also spend time sharing our stories. We take stock of not only what makes us similar, but also the things that make us unique. As we’ve built a classroom canon of our individual stories, the students and I have gotten to know each other slowly and honestly, with shared vulnerability.

Before we chose the texts we would study throughout the year, we began working on how to compare and contrast. In our first weeks, we compared and contrasted our own pasts and presents, with posters featuring images and vocabulary. I presented my own poster first, and the students followed as they felt ready. As our first quarter passed, we explored immigration stories—from Shaun Tan’s wordless book The Arrival to articles about Ellis Island to the documentary I Learn America. The students began to map their own paths to our classroom, and they shared those journeys with their peers. No details were correct or incorrect. No theme was prescribed. No event was the right exposition or climax or resolution. Students chose what felt safe and true to each of them. And sometimes, that meant choosing to tell the story of this school year so far.

Critical Practices for Anti-Bias Education provides recommendations for practical strategies you can use in your classroom to honor students’ identities and experiences.

Throughout the process of telling our stories, one student took longer to open up and was slower to talk. It wasn’t that he was held back by language: His English skills had grown by leaps and bounds over his first full school year in the United States. It was that he didn’t trust me. How could I understand the experiences of a teenager fleeing violence in Central America? I nodded when he asked. “No,” I told him, “You’re right. I don’t understand.” 

In that moment, he started to talk to me a little. I listened. I nodded and I listened. I didn’t try to tell him that I understood his feelings of instability because I moved a lot as a kid or that, as a first-year teacher, I was also insecure in our classroom. In the year that had passed, I had learned an important lesson: Seeking connection with my students by over-identifying my experiences with theirs actually created more distance between us. Recognizing our differences allowed both me and my students to acknowledge their significance and value.

A few weeks later, he showed up in my classroom after school. His keys were lost. His mom would be furious. We retraced his steps, called his mom together, had an announcement made and eventually found the keys. It wasn’t my telling him what we had in common that bonded us. It was simply my being there. Later, when he needed a listening ear for the bigger problems, he came to me. Even when I couldn’t share the experiences, I could listen.

I know the content in my classroom matters, but more than anything, I want to make sure every student leaves with a sense of their dignity and value as a person, regardless of their grades or skills. Some classrooms in this country are probably full of students who walk into the room feeling loved and whole, but a vast number of students show up needing so much more than grammar and test preparation. I want to be able to meet them, to see them and for them to see me. I want to find ways that we can learn together.

Hogan is an English and ESL teacher at a public high school in Washington, D.C. 

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