Thanks for Listening: An Open Letter to the Teacher on the Plane

By Lory Walker Peroff

“Earbuds available to listen to our free entertainment options….or to block out children.”

The crisply dressed male flight attendant with neatly slicked back brown hair announces this as he passes the row containing my two young daughters and me as we begin our ascent for the six and a half hour flight across the Pacific Ocean. Then, looking directly at me, he adds with a smirk and a stifled giggle, “No offense.” With a deep cleansing breath, I overcome the urge to share some choice remarks with our steward.  

By some act of God, soon after take off my daughters quietly nestled themselves into my lap.  The only sound from these exhausted travelers was slow rhythmic breathing indicative of deep sleep. The airplane, however, was not quiet. Directly behind my seat a man was ranting loudly.  He was frequently using language inappropriate for young children’s ears. He clumsily kicked my seat.  He even managed to spill his double Jim Beam on the passenger beside him. And all the while he was sharing his opinion about how transgendered people should not be allowed in the military. I listened. I had no choice. For two hours, I used all my energy to not turn around and shout “Shut Up!”. Not only was his volume turned up to 11, I fundamentally abhorred everything he was saying. Through the profanity laden tirade, I heard a smaller, more rational voice. It was the voice of the young woman seated next to this passenger. She also disagreed with his point of view, but she listened. She listened very differently than I did. She asked clarifying questions. She inquired about his personal experiences. She repeated what she heard him saying. She turned toward him and made eye contact. She did this for two hours. Then through the din, I heard her say, “I am a teacher.”

This incredibly patient young lady set an example of something that all teachers and people should strive to do everyday. She beautifully demonstrated active listening. She was calm and refined. She did not interrupt. She allowed the speaker to finish his point before asking questions. She did not pass judgment. She listened to understand and learn from this stranger seated next to her in an airplane. Despite having wildly different opinions, at the end of the flight she had not made an enemy. Rather, she built a bridge between two very different perspectives.  She graciously thanked him for an interesting conversation and shook his hand.         

Listening is an endangered skill. In a world where people constantly tweet, post, and update all about themselves, listening is becoming increasingly rare. There is so much noise in our daily lives, our attention is constantly under attack by some source of digital distraction. Everywhere you turn phones are being used for everything from giving us directions to counting calories, but seldom used for actual verbal communication. Texting is rapidly replacing speaking, thus further reducing the time we spend listening to each other. Sadly, it is not unheard of for our Commander-in-Chief to shoot out a quick tweet before listening to advisors.   

Why is active listening important?

Listening is an important way for us to learn about the world around us. Listening opens the door to understanding lives, experiences, and beliefs that are different from our own. Active listening skills are an important part of effective communication. Active listening helps us become better collaborators. Active listeners are better equipped to work with others to solve the unknown problems our future holds.   

What does active listening look like?

Active listening requires attention. In his article “The Science and Art of Listening,” Seth Horowitz states, “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.”  In order to truly listen you must focus your full undivided attention on the speaker.  Herein lies the challenge. Our attention is almost always divided. The listener must intentionally remove all distractions and train the brain to focus solely on the speaker. The first step is to put away papers, phones, and all other distractions. Next it is important for the listener to clear some time in his or her schedule. An active listener should not be in a rush. While listening it is best to make eye contact with the speaker this communicates interest in what is being said. An active listener should have an open mind and refrain from passing judgment.

How do we teach active listening?

1. Model active listening in your classroom.  

Active listening involves listening with all the senses. An active listener faces the speaker and makes eye contact. A person who is actively listening remains relaxed and is not in a hurry. An active listener is not in a rush. Make time to settle in so that the speaker can see, hear, and feel that you care about what is being said.  

2. Explicitly teach the skill of listening.

Teach lessons explaining active listening. Inform the students that active listening is a skill that needs to be practiced just like any other skill. Create charts and examples of what active listening looks like, sounds like, and feels like. Do role plays to allow students to practice the skill of active listening. Make sure to praise students who actively listen to you and their classmates.

3. Give students a voice.

With large class sizes, despite really wanting to listen, it is often a challenge to find time to truly listen to all the voices in class. After teaching about active listening and setting expectations, create sacred times dedicated to active listening. It can be a community circle, morning meeting, or even a lunch bunch. I conduct an hour long Philosophy for Children circle twice a week.  These circles are how I best get to know my students and are often the highlight of my week.  By creating this time, students have more opportunities to practice  active listening and also be heard by their peers.

Now more than ever it is crucial for educators to protect and preserve the endangered skill of active listening. With a lack of proper role models in society and with constant bombardment from digital distractions, educators need to be the models that children look up to. We need to teach our students how to actively listen and learn from those around them. As educators of tomorrow’s leaders it is incumbent upon us to instill in our students that active listening, done properly, shows the speaker that you value and respect their opinion. Active listening helps build trust and understanding. It helps build relationships. Our future is in dire need of leaders who strive to listen, understand, and respect each other in order to work together to solve the world’s problems. With the skill of listening under attack, our ability to understand and respect each other is also in jeopardy. Our greatest weapon to preserve mutual respect and understanding may just be our ears.

Endnote:

Recently after finishing this piece, race riots broke out in Virginia. These riots were a clash between white supremacists and protesters opposing them. During these riots a car was intentionally driven into a crowd of protesters. A 32-year-old woman was struck and killed. The driver of the vehicle was described as an average student in school who idolized Hitler and a had sympathy toward Nazism. His belief in white supremacism was a “known issue” in school. I can’t help but wonder what the conversation would have sounded like if this young man had sat next to the attentive teacher on the airplane? Would she have listened to this young man with the same patience and calm that she had demonstrated on my flight? And if she did, would this man feel that she valued and respected his opinion? I wonder how do you listen when someone’s point of view is just so vile that you can’t possibly value and respect it? I don’t know the answer to this question but I do know that there was a time when this murderous Neo-Nazi was young, so very young that to his unlearned eyes black, white, brown, and yellow were all just hues on the dazzling color spectrum that make up the beautiful world we all live in together.

 

 Lory Walker Peroff is a 4th grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellow who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, three chickens, two goats and one peahen.

Lory Walker Peroff is a 4th grade teacher at Waikiki Elementary School and a Hope Street Group Hawaii Teacher Fellow who believes writing is not only enjoyable but essential. She lives in Honolulu with her husband, two energetic and curious daughters, three chickens, two goats and one peahen.