“Mr. Ben-Joseph, if I don’t come to class high then I’m going to beat the s#$% out of Darnell! That m*&$%$ f*$%$# drives me crazy, I can’t control my anger issues, and I’m sure as hell not going back to jail!”
As alarming as that declaration might sound to any teacher (especially an underpaid adjunct professor who spends more time in the car travelling to faraway colleges than actually teaching), it was not the most disturbing aspect of being a professional educator in Chicago.
With over a decade of teaching communication skills to students from various backgrounds and demographics (but mostly African-American and Latino teenagers from underserved communities), I found that the most heartbreaking thing of all was that by the time they were in my Introduction to Speech class, they had lost all signs of passion. They appeared to lack any hope that they would develop a fulfilling career.
The Motivational Teacher
Having come from a privileged background where all of my friends growing up had very little trouble finding employment after university as lawyers and financial advisors, I felt unequipped to tackle this challenge. Many of my favorite students over the years had a hard time reading and writing, were barely passing their classes, and had very little respect for academia at large.
The sense I get from my students is that high school was not a place where their individual talents and learning were nourished. It was a “one-size-fits-all” education model that doesn’t always feel relevant or realistic to students with the challenges my students face. Had my students been given a forum to articulate their thoughts and feelings in high school, I believe they would have been more excited and prepared for college.
Being no stranger to the disenchantment that comes from falling through the cracks of a public school education myself, I related to their struggle in school but not to their lack of ambition.
In many ways my own academic struggles growing up are what got me into teaching in the first place, especially in an urban college setting. I truly believed, and hoped, that I could inspire and help these underserved teenagers believe that they can achieve their goals. Upon realizing that their passions had not been addressed or nurtured in the first place, I felt a huge dissonance. Without passion, they had no hope of breaking out of their familiar and incredibly dangerous environment. One student told me that he looked down upon anyone who left the “‘hood.” He declared that his plan was to stay in Maywood because anyone who left was a sellout.
The Stand-Up Teacher
After a few semesters of feeling depleted and irrelevant as a teacher, I found that the only way to engage the group of 25 disinterested students was to drop the motivational speaking component of my lecturing style and focus solely on entertaining them. I realized that being a stand-up comedian who told jokes about his life, and on the side made the class perform speeches, was not exactly the job I was hired for. At the time, the approach seemed the safest way to get through class.
Even though I was getting the students to show up more consistently because they looked at speech class as a free comedy show, I felt like a fraud. It was clear to me that I did a horrible job of empowering them. I so badly wanted to connect with these students, but was doing so only on a superficial level.
The Listening Teacher
This burnout led me to not try as hard and to phone it in. I didn’t speak as much or prepare lectures. Instead, I just assigned more written work and speech projects. Surprisingly, out of my burnout came a reform of sorts. The result was mind-blowing. Instead of talking at them, I started listening to them. The students began to open up to me in a way they hadn’t before. They trusted me all of a sudden, even shared more of their personal stories and conflicts in their speeches.
Setting up a space in which they felt they could speak their minds and be heard was a game changer. The process was something few of them had ever experienced. By listening, I was able to hear what was truly getting in the way of their learning, and ultimately their passion.
I discovered that it wasn’t that they were uninspired; it was that nobody had ever asked them to talk about their dreams and hopes. By keeping their ideas and feelings locked up inside, their ambitions were not nurtured or developed. How could they articulate what they wanted out of life if they didn’t know how?
We established coaching sessions in which they could talk about anything regarding their career goals. The only restriction was they were not allowed to talk about hurting somebody else (I had to remind them of this restriction more than a few times).
Once they saw that somebody cared enough to listen, the door revealing their ambitions was opened.
I could see a huge change happening. Students that were once reserved or angry in class, began enjoying themselves and interacting with their fellow classmates. They even began turning in assignments on time and with deeper thought put into their work. I learned that listening seemed to be the simplest gesture, but the most effective.
What I Learned About Teaching
Here are four actionable steps that I used for my students in the semesters that followed:
- Asked them about their lives
- Listened to their responses without judgment
- Added to their ideas, without subtracting from them
- Reassured them that their instincts were right
All of these actions helped the students believe that they were important and had every right to succeed in life. Instead of coming in and imposing a prescribed rehearsed course, listening to their stories allowed me to tailor the key lessons to their specific needs. This resulted in true learning.