JoEtta has a passion for equity that has been present all her life.  As the Director of the Equity Alliance at ASU, she connects with educational leaders who want to engage change and transformation.  With a blend of humor, sensitivity, and professional insight, she has helped hundreds of individuals develop the dispositions necessary to use an equity lens for decision-making related to student achievement.  A talented speaker and workshop leader, she has worked with school systems across the United States in addressing issues of equity.

In my work with schools, I have the opportunity to talk with students about their school experiences. They often say that adults in school don’t listen – that they’ve never been asked their opinions before – and that adults in schools have too many other things to worry about besides the thoughts, ideas, or issues that concern kids.  These students come from elementary and secondary schools in both traditional and alternative settings.  The common message I receive is they don’t feel their ideas are important; and these feelings of anonymity often result in students who disengage from school. Over time, these feelings start to accumulate, and situate the student within the margins of classrooms and schools. Many times these students are labeled “at risk” because they are in danger of failing to achieve at levels similar to their peers or of developing behaviors and attitudes that create barriers to school success; and ultimately failing to graduate.

Creating spaces where all students feel a sense of belonging and connectedness involves responding to the feelings and perceptions of youth – including youth most often thought of as marginalized. Although this is a complex problem, one effective approach is to develop our skills in listening to and talking with our students. The ways in which teachers and other adults go about creating opportunities for two-way dialogue between themselves and their students is a vital part of culturally responsive practice.

Culturally responsive learning environments are based on the relationships that we form with students as well as those that students form among themselves. Relationships are nurtured and supported through communication patterns.  As educators, we’re not just conduits of information; we help students understand their place in the world, and hopefully foster a sense of importance. The way to become a better listener is to practice “active listening” (from my days as an elementary school principal, we defined this as using our eyes, our ears, and our hearts).  Active listening involves making a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, seek to understand their complete message.

To drive home this point, I’d like to share a story from a recent visit a colleague and I made to a school…

After leaving a meeting at the end of a long day planning curriculum around school safety and inclusiveness, my colleague Kori and the principal of the middle school in which we were working, saw a girl walking slowly down a brightly lit corridor.  The student was an afterschool visitor from the nearby high school, and as the two adults approached her, they greeted her with a friendly “hello”.

The student said hi back, but her body language indicated something was weighing heavily on her mind.  Noticing the girl’s demeanor, Kori and the principal asked the student how she was doing. The girl replied, “I hate high school.  People are mean and they spread rumors about me”.  When prompted, the girl elaborated on the rumors.  She was obviously upset, and just being in the middle school where she attended school last year seemed to be comforting.

To solace the student, the two adults hugged the student, and the principal told her in a very kind and supportive way, “It gets better”.  The principal then went about her business in the office.

Kori stayed with the student and asked if she had anybody to talk to about her feelings.  Kori asked about the source of the rumors, and the student responded with an, “I don’t know.  I’m just used to it”.

Kori countered by telling the student she shouldn’t get used to feeling like this, and that it’s often helpful to talk to an adult who cares.  She informed the student that she and I would be visiting schools the next day, and let her know we’d be looking for her during our visit to the high school.

The student told Kori we would probably be able to find her alone in a corner somewhere, and then proceeded to ask Kori if she was a social worker or something.

Kori replied, “No, just an adult who cares”.

Getting students to talk about their perspectives and experiences requires the development of strong listening skills. If students perceive that you are a good communicator and listener, then they are more likely to seek you out when they are in need of support. In the case of this student, she was coming to the middle school because it felt like a safe place where she might get some support for the feelings she was experiencing.  The student’s body language indicated to Kori and the principal that she wanted to talk about something, so they took the time to engage in dialogue with her.

As I reflected on the experience, I started to think about the skills Kori possesses related to dialoguing with students.  In this case, I was impressed with the way she took the time to listen to and inquire about the feelings of this student. Kori asked just the right questions and responded eloquently when the student expressed signs of distress.  It got me thinking about whether or not other adults are equipped to have conversations such as this; and as Kori and I continued to talk about her response, I started to examine my own thoughts about the messages adults often use with students.  In particular, I turned my attention to the “It gets better” phrase, and my own use of such phrases meant to avoid similar complicated interactions with students.  From there my mind wandered to the It Gets Better Project and the strong message of support they are attempting to provide for youth.

The It Gets Better Project was created to show LGBT youth the amount of happiness and possibility available in life – if they can make it through their teen years.  With a series of YouTube messages and web resources, this movement has inspired more than 30,000 user-created videos that have been viewed more than 40 million times. To date, the project has received submissions from celebrities, organizations, activists, politicians and media personalities, including President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Adam Levine, Larry King, the staffs of Cisco Systems, Google, Sony Entertainment, the Broadway community, national colleges and universities, and many more.

Since its inception, the project has expanded to include a book, a 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline, and programs that aim to create safe and supportive environments for everyone.  The project is comprehensive in many ways. But the message, “It gets better”, in and of itself is not comprehensive.  If we choose to use this phrase with students, we need to be prepared to back it up with the necessary support, much like the national project has done.

When adults tell students “it gets better” without seeking to understand and support them in what they’re going through, it can come across as cliché because it doesn’t validate their experiences in the here and now.  As adults, we understand just how quickly childhood passes, and have many tools to help us through challenging times, but we need to remember our students don’t usually have this perspective.   It takes a lot of awareness and strength of character to actively listen and appreciate the outlook of our students.  Active listening promotes trust between adults and students and helps to bridge students’ thinking and experiences to that “better” place and time in which we so often refer.

The idea of moving beyond “it gets better” reminds me to be deliberate with my listening and remember that my goal is to truly hear what students are saying. As I continue working to help school systems become more equitable, I’ll remember to ask questions, reflect, and paraphrase to ensure I fully understand students’ thoughts and opinions.  Effective communication in schools and classrooms is one of the primary, pro-active tools for promoting equity so that all students feel they belong, are included, and that their contributions are valued.  It is our responsibility as educators to become competent communicators in order to develop solid relationships with our students and demonstrate their importance in our schools and in our lives.

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