In my first year of teaching, I had a notebook, its spiral along the top, and I’d flip pages as class progressed. During my free periods, I’d write scripts of discussion in easy-to-read caps as if I meant to shout the day out, and, along with my own questions, I included student responses. Not verbatim, but comments sat there on the page, written out lovingly—what I expected them to say.
Which, you can probably guess, is exactly what they didn’t say.
I was young. I was naïve. I was idealistic. One day, I returned to the room from a bathroom break between classes to discover one of my students sitting on my stool, flipping my pages and howling with laughter. Her performance of “CLASS:…” sent her friends into hysterics.
Planning so carefully helped me study twists and turns—I don’t regret it, and even after being revealed, I continued to script class and did learn to anticipate answers a little more accurately.
But I don’t script anything now. That work is done, and I’m too lazy.
Instead I improvise. “Know how to listen,” Plutarch said, “and you will profit even from those who talk badly.” Teaching is hearing what students really say and making the most of it. And sometimes, it’s a hard job.
Just before spring break, an interviewer for a summer school visited my classroom. We were discussing Citizen Kane, and I fixed on really listening, attending to their comments and prodding them to develop and substantiate their perspectives. Truthfully, I wanted to elude anxiety by asserting very little myself, but I also wanted to demonstrate how central listening is to my teaching, how making a class feel valued often makes their comments valuable. I had that thought. “Wow,” passed through my head, and “Gee, I’m really listening.”
And then I lost the thread of what one of my students was saying. The marker paused over the white board, unsure of its direction, purpose, or reason for being.
Listening requires extraordinary concentration. Albert Guinon said most people, “Are already listening to what they are going to say themselves,” and that statement comes closest to the psychological truth. We live in anticipation.
The Zen of teaching is treating every moment as unscripted and new, but, if my experience tells me anything, it’s how cultivated that state of mind is. Strangely, we aren’t born ready to absorb. There’s too much pouring out to take much in.
Yet, what could be more important than listening? The health care debates dominating the news over the last week seem a drastic case of pipes pouring and pouring and pouring. I’m not sure anyone heard anyone else. The contest came down to who shouted loudest. Everyone focused on outcomes. No one was ready for now or the promise it presents.
My children always catch me forming judgments prematurely, about movies, about books, about things their friends have said. I’ve told them a person needs to know something to interpret it, interpret it to understand it, understand it to appreciate its intent, and appreciate it to judge it, but I often struggle with doing that myself. Perhaps it’s a symptom of this faster age, but most of us jump straight to judgment. Listening requires too much patience, too much vigilance.
And desire. I feel lucky to have been revealed. I may not have changed my ways when my student aired my script all those years ago, but I did learn something. I was performing, not teaching, posturing, not engaging, emptying myself when I might absorb ideas to make me more than myself.