Letting Go and Listening

Scott GallagherUncategorized

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The traditional school system structure is top down with teachers somewhere in the middle. Everyone knows their role, and can choose to submit or rebel as it suits them.  At The Learning Cooperatives we replace the top down model with a collaborative approach where the teens have much more agency. Not being told what to do can create some culture shock for students coming from public school. Similarly, when I came on board as a staff member this September after 17 years of public school teaching I had to learn a new way. I had to learn to give up control.

So what’s a teacher to do who can’t tell the kids what to do?  

Imagine a group of teens and staff hanging out in a common space while one boy walks around the room listening to music with headphones, singing along really loudly. The group is clearly getting annoyed with his obtrusive behavior. At school I could simply take away his phone or headphones. At school, I could order the kid to stop, threaten him with detention, throw him out of class. At PLC, I try to listen first for clues as to why he’s behaving this way. It doesn’t mean that I won’t ask him to stop. I may tell the boy that it’s difficult to have a conversation with his singing, and would he mind going into another room if he wants to sing like that. But I might also see this as an opportunity for connection. Rather than ignoring the “why,” I’m going to believe that he’s acting like that for some good reason and it’s my job to find out that reason. Maybe he doesn’t feel included in the group, maybe he just has a lot of energy to burn, or he’s feeling anxious and can’t contain himself. Maybe he doesn’t even realize the effect his shouting has on the others. Nevertheless, this is an opportunity.  For me to listen and to understand him better, and for him to be heard and to reflect on his own behavior.  

But in order to do this, I need to let go of the habit of power I’ve had for years. This part of my adjustment can be difficult at times. It’s just easier to control. It’s easier to say “Knock it off!” or give a detention. But I’m committed to doing something different, partly because I’ve seen how the power structure in schools in many ways is completely ineffective. Giving detention to students for showing up late to school does not get kids to school on time. Kicking someone out of class for burping or cursing does not help them to be more polite.  

But it’s not just about the ineffectiveness of the power structure. It’s about what can be gained by giving it up. When the power structure is not there, the teens can see the staff as allies and equals. Trust can be developed. We can truly collaborate in real conversation and real self-reflection without playing the game of authority. And while it may not be easy, the adults must let go of being in control because that’s when real learning can happen.