“I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to ‘turn the teacher off!'”
Almost every school day for the past thirteen years, I have been successfully and unsuccessfully teaching students how to express themselves through the use of the English language. Among other responsibilities, I am employed to inform teenagers about the concepts and conventions of language use, provide them with strategies to improve their skills, and encourage them to practice. It’s no surprise, after thirteen years of repeatedly listening to people ask for help with their problems, that offering help, solutions, and strategies has become my modus operandi. I love working with people; I am invested in each student; I take my job seriously. And at this point in my career my habits are deeply ingrained. The problem is, I can’t always “turn the teacher off,” outside of the classroom which is something I have been accused of several times by the people I love most. My teacher mode of listening, which is useful in diagnosing and prescribing solutions in order to achieve specific results doesn’t always smoothly transfer to my personal relationships.
In the context of life beyond the classroom (and within the classroom, too!) people often need a different form of listening– a more compassionate form. Most times, people who appear to be asking for solutions to their problems just want to be heard, and perhaps they don’t even realize that is what they are asking for– to be heard. As the listener and friend, I certainly don’t need to treat them like a student who is struggling with a challenging concept.
Conferring with a student about writing, in other words, isn’t the same thing as sitting with someone who’s grieving. The struggle to write (and to learn anything in general) is a painful process, but it isn’t the same kind of suffering as, say, the loss of a loved one or a break-up, or dealing with the pain of infidelity or the discovery of a serious illness. It’s certainly not the same kind of suffering as being wronged or a victim of abuse of injustice. All of this might seem rather obvious if you are reading this and you aren’t a teacher, but I used to confuse and misuse the two kinds of listening, and I bet many other teachers can relate. As a consequence, the people I cared about, who only needed me to be there and not do anything for them, told me to “turn the teacher off!” I didn’t need to be responsible for diagnosing and prescribing a recipe to address my son’s fight with his best friend. I didn’t need to offer a to do list to help a friend deal with her poor eating habits. I only needed to be present to listen, compassionately, to these most personal struggles and complaints without offering any sort of solution at all. Many times, less is more, which has always been a challenge for me, as I bet it is for others.
After all, teachers don’t act as teachers, we are teachers through in through; it’s the predominant part of our identity. So it becomes very difficult to shut that part of ourselves off, but we can certainly become far more conscious of our tendencies toward constantly feeling responsible for people and their problems, offering practical solutions, or taking charge. We can learn to bite our tongue, “hold our seat,” and offer compassion with merely our presence and attention. We can surely do this with our students as well, when appropriate. The knack is knowing when which sort of listening is called for (or both) and moderating our sometimes knee-jerk reaction of controlling a conversation and actively offering solutions. Just because we exercise our authority and expertise repeatedly with our students day after day doesn’t mean we ought to be the authority in our personal relationships. The modus operandi of teaching in school doesn’t always work “in the real world.”
More often than not, many people just need to sort through their own problems out loud with someone present, whether it be how to deal with putting their dog down or how to write a conclusion to their essay. Again, less is usually more. When we teachers jump in too soon to “help” the people we care about most, whether it be our students or our spouses, this active form of assistance can take away that person’s independence, self-confidence, and the golden opportunity for them to learn and appreciate the value of compassionate listening. And, really, the best way to learn how to listen at all is simply to be heard. To be on the receiving end of true listening is a gift you can then bestow on others, and as all effective teachers know, modeling is one of the most effective tools in the teacher’s toolbox.
I thought I was a fairly capable listener when I first began teaching, but I have improved the quality of this skill after lots of trial and error with both students and my loved ones who taught me what it means to turn the teacher off; through my own frustration of not feeling heard; through quiet reflection and writing; and through my yoga practice, which is essentially showing up and being present for yourself as well as compassionately listening to what is happening in your body and mind while suffering through postures in an overwhelmingly hot and challenging conditions. In yoga, I learn to get quiet, simply stay with the difficult sensations and thoughts as they happen within, and hold the postures using stillness and conscious breathing. This discipline trains me to better “hold my seat” (and my tongue) with people when they need it most.
I also learned how to get better at compassionate listening from the example of one very close friend. At first, I judged him as slightly disinterested and incapable of finding good answers and solutions to my problems when he failed to say much. I only realized later that he was not unsure of what to do at all, but was being mindful, empathetic, nonjudgmental, and was providing space for me which allowed me to sort through my own dilemmas safely within the security his presence provided. That’s love. He knew that’s what I needed, despite my pleading with him for answers— for him to do something! He was there for me. His conscious and intentional decision not to act, to do less rather than more, was the exact brand of helping I needed in order to feel capable, independent, and strong. Count yourself lucky if you have this sort of teacher in your life!
I think that in this age of accountability in education, a lot of times, we teachers believe that we must always be taking action with our students, that we always must be doing something concrete and practical, for we are observed and evaluated on our performance, as are our students. Many of the yogis I teach also believe the same– that a more visible demonstration of posing is what shows the most progress in their practice, but the art of self-control and presence for oneself is invisible yet far more valuable than any external show of mastery in the asanas. Why do we feel that we are supposed to consistently demonstrate our skills and strategies and that they must all be outwardly visible? Is it because otherwise it appears as if we are doing nothing or we are unproductive which runs counter to our deeply ingrained values? As many teachers already know, some of the best teaching and learning, like compassionate listening, is entirely invisible; it’s relatively unquantifiable; and it’s found in a consciously chosen “not-doing.” I wish more people knew this.
By failing to turn the teacher off, I have learned that, at times, my mere presence is all that is required, and to show up for people I care about and do less rather than more is sometimes the best kind of teaching.