"Learning to Listen" by Dean of Students Mark Spence
I absolutely love the pace of summer. I am fortunate to love what I do for a living, but I find great value in stepping away for a while each summer. In a blink of an eye, here we are, back for another school year.
Inside and outside of Nobles, a lot has transpired this summer. On campus, our new head of school has joined our community alongside new faculty, staff and students. Beyond Nobles, national and international events have challenged us all in uncomfortable ways, leaving us searching for explanations and a way forward.
This summer, I spent a lot of time thinking about discussion and debate. Discussion, of course, is the process of talking about something, often to make a decision or share information. Debate is more formal and public, typically, often with opposing voices. Recently, as I’ve observed discussions and debates in various settings, I notice that those in the conversation or on the stage are frequently not being good listeners. When the involved parties aren’t listening carefully and respectfully, everyone leaves more frustrated and entrenched in their ideals than they were before. More importantly, they haven’t advanced their point of view or come to better understand the other’s. Practicing respectful discussion—which requires becoming a good listener—is key to being a good student. It’s also a requirement for being a good citizen.
As educators, we certainly need to cultivate skills that allow for better discussion and mutual understanding. At times, we also need to recognize that challenging discussions are more difficult to take on when they involve emotion or history: issues related to race or class would, for example, fall into this especially difficult category. For a discussion or debate around hard topics to be successful, all parties need to be open to understanding the other’s experience and perception—not an easy task but crucial as we try to bridge our divides, whatever those may be.
In helping students in my role as dean of students, these listening skills and a willingness to validate another’s experience and feelings is important. I try to model this willingness to hear and be heard every day in my office. I also model being trusting and giving the person opposite me the benefit of the doubt. A situation or a relationship can often be salvaged when we give ourselves permission to both disagree and respect others. If you can leave a difficult conversation thinking, “I completely disagree with this person, but I believe that they are coming from a good place,” that’s a good and important step forward.
So, where to go from here in a country that feels so divided? We remind each other to rely on our principles. As adults and teachers, we model those principles relentlessly. An education is about academics, for certain, but it’s also about the less palpable and sometimes more elusive accomplishments and attributes: listening and being respectful, while we remain true to what we believe.