Listening As Education Advocacy

We don’t need a stress test to know that something is seriously wrong with us as a culture. But we’re afraid to face it, as much as I was afraid to make the appointment to see my doctor. Who wants to find out that you’ve got to make drastic changes? So we — I mean, I, avoid and live in a denial reinforced by opinions that push me towards those behaviors that feel good for a second, but ultimately cause major problems.

So, when I decided to stop ignoring the pains and arrhythmia radiating from my ribcage, I knew it would involve getting part a stress test. What I didn’t know was that I’d also get a lesson in learning to shut down the part of me that’s always spoiling for a fight.

The stress test meant that I needed to have a handful of electric wires hooked to me so I could be monitored throughout the diagnostic. This also meant I’d be spending some time in a vulnerability suit (also known as a hospital gown that opens from the front).

The cardiac nurse in charge made small talk as she completed the awkward placement of of several electrodes on my chest. various places not often exposed to view. I’d worn my ID badge into the exam room, so she assumed I was still teaching.

Rather than begin the tedious explanation of my new job in curriculum, I told her that yes, I teach English (because I don’t think I’ll ever not be a teacher of some kind; it’s in my bones).

“Can I ask you a question about that?” she said.

I thought, by scanning the religious artifacts in her treatment room, as well as the amount of times she’d already used “the Lord” in our brief conversation, that she was going to talk about the books we use in school. My jaw tightened as I prepared to defend Harry Potter and friends.

“Why are they not teaching penmanship any more?” she asked, completely upending my assumptions about her.

The day before, I’d listened to a state board of education member hector English Language Arts experts about the need to teach cursive handwriting throughout school. The experts were there to report on their work revising the Texas ELA standards. Rather than question them on anything of substance, she’d hijacked their report with a lengthy complaint about how refusing to teach cursive handwriting was the worst educational malpractice because it would lead the downfall of our society.And here I was listening to this cardiac nurse far away from Austin repeat the same fears to me.

“Do you mean teaching cursive handwriting?” I asked.

“Yes, that’s what I don’t understand. My grandson isn’t learning how to write in cursive, and I can’t believe it because we send him to a good school,” she said. “If he doesn’t learn cursive, how will he ever read things like the Constitution? Why don’t they want kids to read that? I don’t agree with that and it worries me.”

There’s a lot to unpack in her statement, but one thing I hope I’ve begun to learn is how to listen and understand better before I try to answer.

“So you’re worried that he isn’t going to know his history?”

“That’s exactly right,” she said. “He won’t be able to read anything that’s cursive — it’ll be like a foreign language. He won’t read be able to read letters or anything. And I guess what also makes me sad is that his little brother won’t be able to sign his little name, won’t have an autograph. My oldest grandson is so proud of being able to sign his little name.”

“I can understand why that would make you sad,” I said.

“Then why doesn’t anyone else understand that? Why are they taking that away from our kids?”

No one likes to have things taken away from them — it’s human nature to fear loss more than embrace gain. Rather than argue what I’m sure you can plainly see are logical flaws in her words, I decided to use our common history to help her understand a basic Texas rule we both knew: you can’t shove 10 pounds of cow patties in a five-pound sack.

“I don’t know that it’s so much anyone trying to take it away as us trying to figure out how to make time and space for all the things we need to teach,” I said.

She stopped placing wires and looked at me.

“Think about when you and I were in school,” I said. “All the things we had to learn. Now, imagine learning all of that, plus everything else that’s happened since we were school, all in the same amount of time.”

Her eyes looked off into the distance, as if she were imagining herself in a desk inside a Panhandle school. I could see her mentally calculating the spiraling global and societal complexities, the pace of technological change from our childhood until now.

“I guess that would be hard to try to get everything in,” she said.

“It’s really hard because we want to do what’s right for our kids, but we only have so much time,” I said. “We have to focus on what we feel like they have to know for the future we can’t see, so it’s always a guess. And it’s always a matter of pruning things we know are good to know, but maybe not critical to know.”

“I guess handwriting is hard to fit in with computers and things like that,” she said.

“Maybe you could teach your baby or even have your older grandson teach him?” I said. “That sounds like a great opportunity to get out some old letters in your family to use in teaching the skill plus your family history.”

She smiled and I could see her imagining this. The cardiac tech came in then and starting explaining the various readouts the doctor would receive, the data being saved through the wires.

The nurse patted my arm and called me honey as she left, so I knew we parted on good terms.

The truth is that we in education don’t do ourselves any favors by insulating ourselves from, or worse, tuning out the concerns of parents and grandparents.

We all want what’s best for the children who will inherit this country, we just often disagree on how to make that happen. If we don’t listen to those who disagree with us, don’t make a good faith effort to understand the fear that so often powers our division, then what chance do we have for real progress?

All of us — and by that I really am preaching to myself here — can take the first step of trying to make sure we’re hearing the other person correctly rather than assuming we know what they’re saying.

Ask, then listen, then validate the concern. Even if you disagree.

A very wise person taught me to use this validating phrase for those times when I’m faced with arguments that I find absurd, offensive, or ridiculous: “I can see, from your perspective, how that makes sense.”

We want to be heard — all of us. It’s amazing how willing people are to listen to you once you’ve made the effort to listen to them.

And maybe, just maybe, we can actually take a couple of steps down a smoother, faster road than the pot-holed one we’re stuck on right now.

Photo via VisualHunt

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