Really Listen

Educators recognize that communication between school and home is essential for student success. One of the most common goals teachers and administrators set for themselves at the beginning of the year is to make more parent phone calls. However, sometimes our conversations with parents are not as fruitful as they can be and concentrating on depth rather than breadth might be a more worthy goal.

*This video contains graphic language*

Robin Williams (Patch Adams) admits himself to a hospital so that he can work through his emotional and psychological struggles. In this scene he becomes frustrated that his doctor does not seem to care, or pay attention to what he is going through.

Patch, after helping his roommate the previous night, comes to his doctor invigorated and with a sense of purpose. He knows exactly what he wants to do. He wants to help people. Patch says, “I want to listen. I want to really listen to people.”

The juxtaposition of Patch needing someone to listen to him, and not having it, and seeing what can happens when you really do listen to someone (his roommate), opens his eyes to the power of human connections.

A popular question asked in teacher interviews is, “How do you communicate with parents?” Candidates frequently respond by sharing that they like to call home, and not just when there is a concern, but for positive reasons as well.

This is not an incorrect response. In fact, this is the answer a lot of administrators are looking for. It is valuable to call home to share the great things students are doing in schools.

However, I think that the answer is missing something. We all know that there will be times for teachers and administrators when we have to call with unpleasant news. Whether it is academic or behavior related, there are going to be times when we have to make the difficult call. So what does that phone call sound like?

More often than not the format of the phone call looks like this:

  1. Start off with a compliment – “I really enjoy having Johnny in class.”
  2. Explain the concern – “Unfortunately, he has not been participating on the in-class activity we have been working on and failed to turn in the final project.”
  3. Provide a brief way they can help – “If you could follow-up with him and encourage him at home, that would be wonderful.”

Again, nothing wrong with the conversation, but it is incomplete. It is not a two-way conversation. We are dictating to the parent what we think of their child, what they did, and what we need them to do.

We say that it takes a village to raise a child. In order to involve the whole village we need to ask the right questions. And when we ask the right questions, we need to “really listen.”

What are the right questions? After explaining the concern to the parent, here are a few questions that can garner great information.

  1. What do you think?
  2. What questions do you have about him in class or this incident?
  3. What have you found at home that really motivates him?
  4. What strategies have been successful at school in the past?
  5. What are some of his interests and hobbies?
  6. When he talks about school, what does he say?
  7. What does he like most about school?
  8. What can I do to better support him at school?
  9. What other questions do you have about this class or school?
  10. Would you like some more resources to follow-up at home?

Asking these questions does two things: provides valuable insight into the problem with possible solutions and builds a partnership with the parent so that they know we are in this together, on the same team.

I am not saying that we are all like the doctors from Patch Adams. But sometimes we do everything we can to get off the phone as quickly as possible, because it is uncomfortable to have tough conversations and open ended questions can lead to a conversation that we haven’t fully scripted in our heads. When we do that we are missing a golden opportunity to show our humanity, connect with our families, and learn about our students.

Let us do our best to really listen to parents and avoid “Sucking at it,” as Patch so eloquently states.

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