Our Students Are Talking But We’re Not Listening

“So, do I just give zeros to the kids who slept through the final?” This was a serious question posed to me one day, and serious both because it was a real-life actual question, and because it points to a real problem with what our schools are doing for our kids. “My kids walked out of my room. I told them not to, but they ignored me. How do we stop them?” Another question. Same day. Again, there is a moment that needs addressing, but some much deeper issues at play. Why don’t our students do what we want them to? Why aren’t our students trying hard enough? How do we make them? Staff conversations are often focused on students in all the wrong ways. We talk about how to control students, how to make students behave, how to manage them. It’s problematic, because we aren’t talking about us. If our students aren’t listening, if our students aren’t trying, if our students are failing, then we need to ask what we can do differently. Students care. I promise they do. Shutting down, sleeping, ignoring, disrupting…all are defense mechanisms for any number of things our students may be going through. A student won’t listen to someone they don’t feel heard by. A student won’t respect someone they don’t feel respected by. To students, these interactions often look and feel different. Students are remarkably good at telling us when what we’re doing isn’t working, but we’re less good at knowing how to listen. On the way out of school yesterday, I walked past a school employee talking to a group of young students about a trouble they had in class. He asked a simple question. “Were you sitting quietly, or being disrespectful?” The question perfectly reflects a belief many educators have: Quietness is golden. A quiet classroom is a successful one, a quiet student is an engaged student. A loud student is, by virtue of their loudness alone, somehow disrespectful. The either/or lens ignores the fact that, for many students, engagement and respect is shown through verbal responses. Those responses, then, those authentic moments of engagement, questioning and processing, are called “out of turn,” are called disrespect, are cause for conflict in the classroom. Those interactions highlight the need for teachers to understand culture. So often, we talk about “high expectations” for students, but those high expectations are actually expectations for a high level of assimilation to white culture. They are not, as they should be, high expectations for critical thinking, creation or reflection from students. Our high expectations are that students should show up not one second late for class, sit quietly, turn every piece of homework in on time, and treat teachers with deference for their authority and unflinching respect whether the respect is returned or not. We have high expectations for successful adherence to cultural norms that often have little to do with how much a student understands. These are conditions that quiet white kids learn best in, conditions that white teachers feel most comfortable in, and is an atmosphere valued above all others in schools. “Kids at my last school could do this stuff in their sleep.” The results of this cultural supremacy are disastrous for the students it does not serve. When students refuse to fail in silence, they are sent from the classroom, excluded from school emotionally and physically. Teachers see failures as a problem with the students, not the instruction, so adapt not by teaching easier stuff instead of teaching the hard stuff better. Teachers and schools struggle to understand why students are not engaging in a class that is poorly delivering insultingly easy material. So often, issues with students aren’t about what they’re saying, but about our unwillingness to listen. Teaching requires a belief that all students can learn, not just the ability to say so in a staff meeting. Teaching requires a constant reflectiveness on what we are or are not doing best for our students. Teaching requires a lot of uncomfortable reflection on what we believe about our students and why. Teaching well requires energy focused on fixing our failures rather than imagining who to blame.
Tom Rademacher (Mr. Rad to his students) is an English teacher in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In May of 2014 he was named Minnesota Teacher of the Year. An earlier version of this post appeared on his personal blog.

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