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?

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