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Tips to improve teaching, leadership

Shane Safir shares how something as simple as listening can improve the way a school functions.

3 min read

Voice of the Educator



In “Getting to know students deeply,” which consider culturally responsive teaching, Editor’s Choice Content Award winner Shane Safir writes, “[H]ow do we know if we’re culturally responsive if we’re not listening to our students?”

We can only learn so much from test scores, Safir explained during an interview on Education Talk Radio. Educators need to engage to learn, perhaps, why a student is falling behind or is sleepy in class, she said.

In her book, “The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation,” Safir asserts that teachers and school leaders need to triangulate satellite-, map- and street-level data to get a good understanding of another’s experience. Her article focuses on various means of collecting street-level data in the classroom, including conducting one-on-one interviews with students, closely tracking students’ oral classroom participation and tracking students’ use of academic language.

In 2003, Safir co-founded the June Jordan School of Equity, a high school devoted to social justice and independent and critical thinking. While collecting community data to plan the school and, subsequently, while listening to staff, Safir developed rigorous listening practices, which she presents as a key to driving change in an institution. These practices became the foundation for The Listening Leader, which offers examples for superintendent, principal and teacher leadership levels.

Listening challenges

When implementing her listening practices, Safir has encountered pushback from school leadership and teachers alike. “[S]ometimes leaders in schools feel a need to flex their expertise,” she said, “but what I’ve learned through both being a principal and then coaching leaders for the last 10 years is that if you learn to listen deeply, if you learn to understand the story and the struggles of the people that you’re working with, that is the strongest ingredient to transforming a school.”

Teachers’ concern with Safir’s listening practices in the classroom was simple: they didn’t have time to listen to and analyze each child in their classroom. There’s an impulse towards burnout among teachers in high-need schools with lots of initiatives happening, Safir suggested. She asked teachers to begin by focusing on just a few students at a time, comparing listening to a muscle: the more you use it, the better you’ll get.

Listening in October

Safir ended her interview with two activities teachers can try in October to improve their listening and culturally responsive teaching skills. “This is a great time of year to do the shadow-a-student protocol [described in my article], especially for school leaders,” Safir said. “Take a day or half a day and follow a student; you’re going to get the type of data that you just can’t get any other way.”

Her second suggestion was for school leaders to launch a “listening campaign,” a practice profiled in her book. The campaign involves interviewing a group of school members, asking the same set of questions and then looking for patterns across their responses. “This creates a lot of buy-in,” Safir explained. “It creates a sense of being listened to, and it also gets you that street-level data that helps you move your school.”

Shane Safir is a recent winner of the monthly Editor’s Choice Content Award. Follow her on Twitter @ShaneSafir. Want to hear more? Listen to the full Education Talk Radio interview.

Teresa Donnellan is an editorial assistant for SmartBrief.


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