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The curse of listening

I am often saying how important it is to listen to students, and that I am fascinated by student thoughts and feelings. When students say I am a good teacher my usual response is to say it’s because I have spent the last eleven years in a situation where I get to listen to lots of students.

But there is an important thing I almost never talk about, which is that sometimes listening is actually awful. I can think of not many more debilitating curses to lay upon people than to wish them the ability to listen.

Because listening is exhausting.

Because I am listening to students, I know an explanation doesn’t work, so I have to come up with new ones, usually on the fly. Because I am listening to student thinking, I come across new ways to think about all sorts of things that I had never considered before, which I then have to process. Because I am listening, I am faced with people’s feelings and stories, which I have to process emotionally. Because I am listening, I can easily become fascinated with new ideas and problems which take up my mind. Because I am listening, I hear things that need changing in teaching methods or university systems, and either try to work to change them or worry that I can’t. In short, because I am listening I am constantly processing information and emotions both in the moment and later on. It’s exhausting.

I don’t always cope well with it. In person with students I can just deal with who is in front of me and it’s ok, though there are times I need a break and just walk away for a few minutes. Unfortunately when I’m apart from the students, I can’t leave my brain behind and I carry with me the swirling thoughts in my head all day long caused by the listening to students. One way I have to cope with this is to talk with people about those thoughts, in person or on Twitter. But I actually can’t talk about all of them, so I have to choose one thing to think about and ignore everything else. There are times I have to say to students or my tutoring staff that actually no I can’t think about that right now, which is really really hard. And there are times I can manage to do an activity like origami or folding or watching tv to turn off my brain for a while to give it some rest. Still the call to listen is back again soon enough.

This isn’t a whinge session to get sympathy, it’s a warning. Be warned that if you choose to listen, you too will have to find ways to ignore some things, to find moments of brain-calm, and to find ways to process the thoughts you do choose to entertain.

Was my aim to scare you off? Certainly not! I wouldn’t ever give up listening and sacrifice the pleasure and learning I get from it, or the benefit it has for students. The blessing far outweighs the curse.

Just be prepared, ok?

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