Janet Sheridan: A Lesson Well Taught

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Janet Sheridan

For many years, fourth-grade children smelling of summer surged into my classroom in early September, bouncing and squirming like puppies surprised at being indoors.

District procedure suggested that I begin the first day of school by explaining the routines necessary for order throughout the year. But as I welcomed my students, shining with hope in their new clothes, I felt a lengthy lecture would be inexcusable.

So rather than burdening my youngsters with two hundred rules for happy living, I chose to spend thirty minutes teaching them how to listen. I believed then, and now, that careful listening in school, as in the world, could solve most problems.

I explained three steps for skillful listening: stop what you are doing, look at the speaker and attend so closely that you could summarize the speaker’s words, if asked.

I presented examples of careful listening and of careless listening, and we discussed them. Then we practiced, practiced again, and periodically reviewed.

I found illustrations of poor listening for my lesson without difficulty: Heads nodded in recognition when I told my students that every time I ordered at the local sandwich shop, the servers asked, “Want everything on it?”

And I always responded that I wanted it all, everything, the works.

Then, without fail, the oblivious workers moved along the condiment line, asking, “You want lettuce?...peppers?...olives?...tomato?...oil?”

But as is usually true in teaching, I served as the most instructive example of heedless listening. Students loved hearing about the October day when I forgot my own attentive listening rules.

I thought clearing my desk of papers was more important than listening to Dino of the dark eyes, who, abandoning the art project that engaged his classmates, brought his winning personality to the side of my desk.

“Mrs. Bohart,” he began.

“Mmm hmm,” I responded, shuffling papers.

“Mrs. Bohart, I’m missing my pen.”

Because I was pretending to listen, I misheard. I thought the cherub had said, “I’m messing my pants.”

He now had my complete attention. I stopped what I was doing and looked at him, but forgot to summarize.

Instead, I leaped to my feet yelling, “Run, Dino, run,” astonishing the class by grabbing the innocent and pushing him to the door.

The restrooms were in the basement of the three-story school. I towed the bewildered youngster down three flights, screeching, “Hurry, Dino, hurry,” before his increasingly hysterical message about missing a pen pierced through my panic.

How do you explain your bizarre actions to a pen-less ten-year-old staring at you with gaping mouth and bugging eyes? How do you explain to the thunderstruck students waiting in the classroom, wondering what sort of lunatic they had been saddled with this year?

You don’t. Instead, you quickly say you misunderstood their bug-eyed classmate’s problem—without mentioning any specifics—and tell them to open their English books for today’s exciting lesson on prepositions.

And you hand a pen to Dino.

Examples of thoughtful listening for my lesson were more difficult to find, perhaps because we do it so seldom.

I usually described my grandmother who had the time to listen attentively and cluck with sympathy when her grandchildren told her their troubles. I also shared examples provided by former students who had discussed listening so often under my direction that they finally gave up and began to practice it.

Year in and year out, my lessons on listening seemed to work; and I like to imagine that the hundreds of children I taught have used careful listening with their loved ones, explained it to their children, and modeled it for their peers.

A wildly optimistic dream, I’m sure, but one I enjoy.

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