True listening brings understanding | Rich Elfers

"Students don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." These words were my mantra over the last seven of my 31 years teaching high school social studies at Sumner. I know a lot about many fields because of my constant reading and thinking, but that isn't enough to have an impact upon cynical and suspicious high school students who won't listen or cooperate if they don't like you.

“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” These words were my mantra over the last seven of my 31 years teaching high school social studies at Sumner. I know a lot about many fields because of my constant reading and thinking, but that isn’t enough to have an impact upon cynical and suspicious high school students who won’t listen or cooperate if they don’t like you.

Trust and respect have to be earned. They do not come automatically, especially for a white male teacher in a primarily feminine avocation. I came to the realization that in education there is a glass ceiling that’s tougher to shatter for males. The reason is because so many students don’t have a strong father figure in their lives. It’s usually the mother who is emotionally connected to her children. This is especially true in our age of single-parent families. The mother is often the only adult role model. This reputation of caring is transferred to women teachers much more readily than to males.

Another reason for this antipathy for males is that many men have trouble dealing with their emotions. Anger is one of the few acceptable emotions men can express in our culture. Although men have become more compassionate since the influence of the feminist movement, which began in the 1970s, there is still a large gap. Mothers don’t usually teach their sons to be aware of the feelings of others as readily as they do for their daughters.

Women use both sides of their brains, being gifted with a larger corpus collosum – the part of the brain that connects the left and right hemispheres. This greater connectedness allows women to see and process more information than men. Men, with their smaller corpus collosa, tend to focus on one thing at a time. This causes them to make quicker decisions because they have fewer sensory inputs than women. In fact, women who are often accused of being indecisive are actually processing much more information, which requires more time.

I remember an occasion when my female principal observed my class. She pointed out to me that I was missing a great deal of what was going on in the classroom. I realized later that women do a better job of multitasking than men who focus on a single thought ignore any distractions. After she pointed this out to me, I worked on becoming more aware. It was difficult, but I did improve over time.

Once, when a woman and I were co-mediating a parenting plan modification between a divorced couple, my colleague and a woman observer in the room pointed out to me some nonverbal signs from the man that I had not noticed. At that point, I became aware how limited my range of vision was. Although I’m a pretty good mediator, I was humbled by how much they could see that just went past me.

Reading Daniel Golman’s “Emotional Intelligence” caused an epiphany. I’m strongly analytical, so why not use that strength to figure out ways to be more emotionally intelligent, I thought to myself? It didn’t come easily, but the more I focused on being more emotionally and socially aware of relationships, the easier it became to pick up cues from others, either by the words people used or by their body language.

I also transferred my ability to get along with my own two children to my students. My attitude was that if I could treat and view my students like my children, they would pick up that caring – and they did. By the time I retired from teaching high school at Sumner, I had several students tell me I was their favorite teacher.

After I started repeating in my head, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” I worked much harder at developing empathy – feeling what others are feeling. This skill was something I had never considered as a concept until two women pointed it out to me.

The amazing part of this whole evolution of thought and action is that, while I’m still learning, all my relationships are much better. Using this concept doesn’t just apply to teens, it applies to all people. The easiest way to show care for others is to simply listen – As Stephen Covey put it in his “Seven Habits of Highly Successful People”: “Seek first to understand, and then be understood.”

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