A few weeks ago, I was catching up on the phone with my sister, a middle-school science teacher who has been in the classroom for over 15 years. A frequent topic of conversation is about the challenges she faces in her classroom—hyper students, burned out teachers, limited resources, and of course, behavioral issues. The other week, she made a comment that took me by surprise: “Some of these kids just need to be placed in an alternative setting. We don’t have the right resources to support them and they’re getting in the way of other students’ learning.” My mouth dropped and all I could say was, “Do you even know what my job is?” What I really wanted to say was, “Haven’t you heard of the School-to-Prison pipeline? How my work is centered around keeping students in their neighborhood schools with the rest of their peers?”
After taking a few breaths, we began to have a dialogue. I remembered one of the recent training topics that we, as facilitators, conducted around coaching. In that training, we asked participants to name the essential qualities and skills of a coach or facilitator. One quality that came up regularly was “listening.” Since then, I have coincidentally come across the theme of listening in other books, articles, and podcasts. Mark Nepo, a poet and philosopher, states: “To listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.” So, I tried to do just that: listen.
When my sister asserted that some students needed to be placed in alternative settings, perhaps what she was really saying was, “I want these students to be included, but I need help figuring out how to do that.” One of the features in the SWIFT framework is a strong educator support system. How can we support teachers who need adequate resources and skills to teach all students, even those with extensive needs? Are we also strengthening the relationship between schools and districts so that teachers’ voices are listened to and considered when making policy decisions?
We start by listening. To be listened to is one of the most essential human needs. It is an opportunity for an individual to be heard, seen, and valued. But often, it is easy to listen with our own agenda, opinions, and judgements where we want to be in control of the conversation and steer the direction our way. As I began to let go of my own agenda with my sister, I saw a dedicated, hard-working teacher who wants to feel valued and supported for all the energy she puts forth every day.
By the end of our conversation, I think we both felt a little changed by what we heard. Perhaps listening is the first step to opening our own minds and seeing the work we have before us.
Jessica Dulay is a Regional Facilitator Director with the University of Kansas, SWIFT Education Center, currently working with the California Scale-Up MTSS Statewide Initiative. Prior to this position, Jessica worked in Washington, DC at the district and state level, providing professional development and technical assistance to schools around Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports and Response to Intervention. She also helped launch the Restorative DC initiative—a collaborative project to increase awareness and use of Restorative Practices across the education sector in order to shift from exclusionary discipline approaches.