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Do you hear whispers?

What do your kids whisper? I stand every morning in the hall and listen to their feet, their shoulders, whether or not they say hello first, their tone of voice and most importantly their eyes. Usually what they say the loudest is the least important. It is very rare that a student will scream for help—normally any plea for assistance is almost silent. If you are not quite, you’ll never hear their whispers.

Before every oral presentation I have everyone freeze and we read their bodies. I could give everyone a grade right then and there and be accurate about 90% of the time. Whose legs are crossed? Arms? Both? Where are they looking? They are all whispers. You have to ignore the normal signs of communication that we are accustomed to getting our messages from. Smiles are sometimes frowns, questions aren’t always looking for answers, bright clothes often hide dark moods, the words of anger hide sadness, expressions that push you away are done because they really want you close, and believe it or not every time a kid asks to go to the lav it does not mean they have to pee. Sometimes I stop class when every single kid is sitting up, looking forward and staring at me and ask them why no one is paying attention. Something happened at gym, there was a problem in the hall coming to class…we have to stop and talk about it otherwise nothing we do in class will stick and they won’t be able to listen to me. Kids can hear our whispers. They know what we are really saying despite the words they hear.

You can often tell if a teacher listens to student’s whispers based on how they describe a student. “He is not working up to his potential.” “He just sits there in class and doesn’t ask any questions or come back for extra help.” “She doesn’t try, she comes in everyday with a poor attitude.” All sentences indicate that the loudest actions and words are being heard, but the whispers are not.

I did not always listen. In fact, for ten years I was a struggling confused traditional teacher. I knew I was missing something but just could not figure out what. I knew that bringing in a good sense of humor was important, but not enough. I knew that creating engaging lessons was important, but not enough. I knew that talking to kids about life was important, but it was not enough. I did not listen to the whispers. Until one dark night I received a phone call informing me that one of my students had committed suicide. I had missed all of her whispers. Every single one. It was on that night that I knew what was missing.

Christina’s suicide was one of the single most influential events in my life. It opened my eyes to an entire spectrum of communication that I had previously missed…or maybe a better way of saying it is that it opened my eyes and ears to an entire spectrum of communication that I had previously misinterpreted. I went into an intense period of reflection, an intense period of replaying student behaviors in my head to figure out what I had missed. Which led to a whole new set of problems…I was getting overloaded whenever I tried teaching because now all I was hearing were their whispers. 13 year olds might be loud, but they also whisper non-stop. My classroom routine had to change. Every Monday when the kids come in we sit and do a “How was your weekend.” Every kid shares something they did over the weekend, kids can ask fellow students to elaborate if they choose. On weeks in which I am feeling a bit crunched it might only last ten minutes. On other weeks it can go the entire period. Other classes during the week start off with “Bits of Business.” I might share a story, we chat about something going on in school, anyone who has something to say gets a chance to say it. Visitors might look at this as wasted time. I call it an investment. I invest 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the period, and it makes the return on the final 45 minutes much greater. It also allows me to get right into the kids heads before we start. I will know who is distracted by something, who is going to have trouble following directions, and who might need a little extra help staying focused during group work. We transition right from Bits of Business to the academic portion of the class so I never have to ask for anyone’s attention, I already have it. They have been given an opportunity to be listened to, and they know that they have been heard—whether they speak aloud, or just give me a glance and whisper.

Thank you for reading my post…if you can hear the whispers…what did I just whisper to you?

12 comments

  1. I have not had students take their own lives but I have former students that lost themselves in drugs, alcohol, or died in car wrecks. Upon learning of some of those situations I feel that it is important to look within oneself and re-evaluate. I too would try to take some time and talk with the students on a personal, yet professional, level. I strongly believe in that type of connection makes educators true educators. Educators provides methods/lessons that can be applied to real life situations without students knowing that they are truly learning. In turn the students become more involved and participate on a higher level with those educators that truly care. To care is to listen and to listen is to become involved and supportive.

  2. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for the reminder to listen to their whispers. I was getting really hung up in all the math skills my students don’t seem to have, and your post struck me like a hand slap to the face. I haven’t been listening… I’ve been head down, blinders on, worried about cramming math into them.
    THANKS

  3. Mr Paul, 😛
    That was very very interesting!!!
    I’m so sorry your student committed suicide, I almost cried while I read that bit. But what is great is that you worked harder, you didn’t give up, you pushed on and from your mistakes you learnt.
    I like this Whispers idea, and you sure whispered alot to me, with all those plenty paragraphs I could hear one sentence standing out, and just as Kobus Van Wyk said “Listen with your eyes”.
    That was a very inspiring post! Thank YOU for sharing Mr Paul, from all these comments I can see many teachers have learnt alot. And I don’t see your activities a waste of time, I see them as wise, wonderful and helpful.
    P.S I have been making friends with your students lately, they are very special!
    Bye bye Mr Paul 🙂
    Nadine

  4. This is a fabulous reminder to pay attention. We spend a great deal of time in our class connecting with each other. I, too, find that this time off curriculum makes time on curriculum much more focused and meaningful. Look into Responsive Classroom. The whole idea behind the program is that if we don’t create this type of environment in school, children will not learn. I went through training last summer and it really confirmed all that I had believed to be true.
    http://www.responsiveclassroom.org/

  5. Wow, After years in the hard, cold business world, I am focused this year on trying to build relationships with my students. (I am a career changer – studying to be a librarian and working as a TA in the HS while working on masters.) Your post slapped me with the reality that my success, my ability to hear the whispers, is still far down the road.

    Please keep up the good work for your students and keep the insightful and educational blog posts coming. I hope to continue to learn from my students and from pros like you.

    Greg

  6. It’s always a great idea for a writer to write about what they know best. That made your blog posting and video really sing. I have listed your blog on my blog roll. I enjoyed reading your story.

  7. Hey Mr. B

    You are really right on the whole if something happens out of class we won’t think of what is going on in class and just think about what happened. You are also right about us hearing what teachers whisper, like last year in science my teacher always said stuff like I never work hard or I don’t pay attention and it made me worse because now I was mad that she would even think of that just because I was out of it for a while, I guess that when we know what, or think we know, the teacher means we kind of take it upon ourselves and that makes us more out of it. You are so right about the:
    “Smiles are sometimes frowns, questions aren’t always looking for answers, bright clothes often hide dark moods, the words of anger hide sadness, expressions that push you away are done because they really want you close, and believe it or not every time a kid asks to go to the lav it does not mean they have to pee.” When I read that I was scared that you really knew just about every little secret in what we say or do. To tell you the truth I ask to go to the bathroom to get away from the class and just think about stuff, I just don’t get how you can know then when we smile sometimes it is to hide sadness or when we yell or get mad it to hide the fact that we r sad.
    I have another one that might help you figure out more about us kids, when we look sad and someone or you ask us what is wrong and we say nothing or I’m fine we are lying either we don’t want to talk about it or we don’t want to remember what happened we just want to forget it all and get back to class work.
    That was a really good post, I really liked it.

    Your favorite student  Karen 

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