What Teachers Need Right Now is for Us To Listen

Whether in-person or virtual, Listening Circles can be a powerful tool for building relationships, learning from each other, and getting to the root of an issue.

By Alysha English

“We are socialized to see what is wrong, missing, off, to tear down the ideas of others and uplift our own. To a certain degree, our entire future may depend on learning to listen, listen without assumptions or defenses.”

Adrienne Maree Brown, from Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds

Just a few weeks ago, COVID-19 changed the world. And few organizations are as deeply impacted as our school communities. As educators quickly mobilized to shift to distance learning, they found themselves struggling to find creative ways to remain connected to their students.

The Teachers Guild and School Retool have always believed that educators are the innovators our schools and communities have been waiting for. That belief has never felt more resonant or important to uphold.

So, we put business as usual aside, and turned all of our attention to better understanding the needs of our educator community. For the past few weeks, we have invited members of The Teachers Guild and School Retool Community to join us on video calls for what we call a Listening Circle. We heard from nearly 100 educators globally who are navigating this complex and unprecedented time with grace, resilience, and tremendous care for their students.

We asked them to share their hopes, fears, and questions, then sat back and listened as they shared with great vulnerability and courage the ways in which they’re preserving meaningful learning and remaining connected with families.

We heard from a teacher in Italy, who called in late in the evening from a dark room with stories about the devastating impact COVID-19 is having on her personal and professional community, where so many have fallen ill.

We heard from a school principal in Wisconsin, who is spending the bulk of his days scheduling 1:1 sessions with all teachers to check in on their personal wellbeing.

We heard from a teacher in Ohio, who made personalized postcards to mail her students as a way to stay connected.

We heard from a district administrator in Georgia, who is organizing an effort to serve nearly a quarter of a million meals to students who would otherwise go hungry without access to school food programs.

As designers, we know that finding new ways forward starts with building empathy. And the best way to gain empathy for what people need is to practice deep listening. Listening is an act of compassion. It asks us to pause. With an increasing sense of chaos and urgency, Listening Circles invite us all to connect with each other in new ways — to model vulnerability, flexibility, and openness. For those listening, it’s an opportunity to model humility. During this time of rapid and radical change, creating a space for reflection can give people the grounding they need to learn from one another, collaborate on new ideas, get feedback, and iterate quickly until they match the need.

Here’s a 5-step plan to help you facilitate a Listening Circle for your own community. We do this for educators, but it would be equally useful for other systems and organizations:

  1. Start with who

Before conducting Listening Circles, consider who you want to learn from. Relationship and power dynamics can shift the design of your session. For example, if you are convening individuals who already know each other or work together closely, there are likely pre-existing dynamics that might impact what people feel comfortable sharing. A general awareness and understanding of your audience can help you design a meaningful dialogue. Pro tip: If you’re bringing together a large group, utilizing group video chat functions such as Breakout Rooms can support people to engage in substantive conversations. Smaller groups also allow for more voices to be heard.

2. Define your learning agenda & questions

What do you hope to learn from your Listening Circles? Take the time to craft questions that will jumpstart conversations AND help guide your Listening Circle. They should be open-ended and generative enough to spark conversation while also leaving room for exploration. Not sure where to start? Here are a few of our favorites:

A simple “How are you?” goes a long way.

What is keeping you up at night? — This helps surface some of the challenges that people are challenging in an open-ended way

What’s giving you hope? — It’s easy to focus on the challenges. This question can also surface bright spots and things that are working.

3. Set the tone with creative exercises and agreements

Take the time to begin with a Creative Warm-Up or activity. For example, invite participants to introduce themselves with a six word memoir. A virtual “Simon Says” works, too. Next, establish some agreements. This will help assure equity of airtime. It also helps participants gain clarity on the objectives of the session and feel more confident about how to participate. When you facilitate a Listening Circle, remember that holding space for others means that you are speaking less and listening more. Repeat direct quotes and anecdotes that are shared. When you have a clarifying question, be specific and supportive — e.g., “Jen, I love what you shared about principals in your district organizing a phone tree to reach families. Can you tell me more about how you started that process?”

4. Reflect with intention

While conducting Listening Circles, practice active listening — without judgement or hidden objectives. Take notes of phrases, quotes, and ideas that surface. After your listening sessions, take some time to synthesize what you heard. When synthesizing, organize your notes from the session by clustering them into themes. This process will help you identify emerging patterns and opportunity areas for design.

5. Listening is ongoing

Listening to gain empathy is a continuous process. During a time of crisis, things change and evolve quickly, as will people’s needs. To make sure your ideas and prototypes are responsive to ongoing needs, deep and continuous listening will allow you to be nimble and to pivot as needed to meet the moment.

Over the next couple of months, we’ll be releasing a series of stories, spotlights, and ideas that we hope will inspire you. For now, here is a sneak peek into some of the things we have learned:

Have other ideas for how to listen to and learn from your community remotely? We’d love to hear about it! Send us a note or DM us on our Instagram. Or you can always share with us on Twitter with #TGuild. If you want to learn more about Listening Circles or connect with The Teachers Guild, reach out to Larry Corio, Teachers Guild x School Retool Program Lead.

The Teachers Guild x School Retool Team