Become a Listening Educator: How to Hear and Connect to Your Students

Sure, you can hear the words that are coming out of your students’ mouths. But are you really listening to them? No matter how much you love your students, it’s not an easy task with so many of them in front of you and so many duties to balance. And yet, nothing is more important than making that personal connection. Let’s take a look at a few tips and tricks for becoming a listening educator – even when what you hear is a mix of whispers and giggles.

Setting the Context

Image via Flickr by quinn.anya

In a recent Edutopia post, Shane Safir, co-founder of the June Jordan School for Equity, described a student who had spent his life in foster homes and was living in an emotionally detached home. Yearning for a stable environment that cared about him, he viewed his school as his family and his teachers as parents. It is important for us to recognize that we’re not just someone whom students see for a few hours a day. We might be the only person to whom they can comfortably talk.

The Importance of Listening

Educational policymakers constantly strive to determine what students need from their education. The answer lies within the hearts and minds of our students. They know what they want from their education, they know what best engages them and excites them about learning, and they fully realize the struggles that they experience both at home and school. Listening to students’ desires may seemingly reduce education to consumerism because we are “catering” directly to student demands; but if it keeps our children engaged, motivated, and out of trouble, isn’t it worth a try?

In his study of large and small schools in Boston, New York University Professor Pedro Noguera found that among students attending large schools, only 26 percent thought they were well known by their teachers, and 34 percent could identify a school employee they could trust with their problems. Students indicated that they would be more excited to learn if teachers exhibited a passion for education, including getting to know students and showing them respect.

Prevent Problems

Organizations ranging from the Nickelodeon television network to the Minnesota House Education Policy and Reform Committee have studied what students seek from their educational experiences. Such studies reveal that students want attention from and relationships with their teachers. Education research group Education Evolving says we need to act on these wants because student dissatisfaction leads to high dropout rates and low academic performance.

Listening may lessen the risk for more serious problems. An FBI report released on the heels of the Columbine High School incident proposes a four-pronged assessment model of personal characteristics, family dynamics, social dynamics, and school dynamics that can help teachers and administrators identify problematic students before violence occurs. When reading the FBI’s identified warning signs, such as “leakages” of personality clues, anger management issues, and signs of depression and alienation, it’s easy to see how offering extra attention to our students can be lifesaving. Listening may not eradicate all school violence, but it can be a step in the right direction.

How to Listen to Understand

Paying attention to students and listening to them can have positive, lasting effects on them. Listening is more than just hearing; it requires understanding predicated by a shift in how we listen.

  1. Become an Active Listener: Active listening means listening with more than the ears. Posture, gestures, facial expressions, and verbal feedback (such as “aha” or “I see”) should reflect understanding. Students should be permitted to finish what he or she is saying before we reply, and judgments should never be made. When engaging in active listening, it’s important to ask for clarification when needed, and it’s equally important to not shut out words we don’t want to hear.
  2. Become Less Distracted: With so much noise and distractions today, we’ve become accustomed to tuning things out. Though it’s not easy, shutting out external and internal distractions, including personal prejudices and biases, invites full focus on what the student is saying.
  3. Become an Empathetic Listener: Like active listening, empathetic listening is a full-bodied listening approach that seeks to fully understand what the student is saying by reflecting his or her emotions. Empathetic listening is positive, not emotionally charged, and non-intrusive. When empathetic listening, it’s critical to avoid negating or brushing off a student’s words. Silence should be respected as a time of reflection for the student. Our demonstrated care and concern for students encourage openness and honesty from them, which can be quite a victory in tense situations.
  4. Become an Obvious Listener: Students are perceptive and can tell when someone is listening. A University of Nebraska study of fifth graders revealed teacher activities that helped students know their teacher was listening. These actions included looking the student in the eye without looking around the room, standing next to the student and looking directly at the student’s work, quieting other students while one student speaks, not interrupting, and offering feedback cues such as nodding.

Benefits of Listening to Students

Perhaps no one reaps more benefits from a listening educator than the students themselves. Stories of radical student transformations abound, all because an educator took a little extra time out of his or her day to listen. Children are often forced into situations too large for their young emotions to handle, and sometimes they don’t have anyone to talk to at home. They respect us as authority figures and role models, and listening is a key part of that. In fact, it is critical to our role as teachers.



  1. andrey_069696

    January 8, 2016 at 2:48 pm

    You will take specific health education courses, but you don’t have to take any elective or general education classes.

  2. Harshika

    January 11, 2016 at 8:35 am

    Listening well is an important part of communication for everyone. I completely agree with you that making the personal connection is very important. The teacher student relationship is to be productive. It is important to maintain an interactive and communicative approach.

  3. Wendy Kleckley

    January 24, 2016 at 6:51 am

    Active listening will also keep students engaged in the learning process. Additionally, It makes the student feel what they are saying is important and relevant. It builds character, self-esteem, and interpersonal skills.

  4. Sarah Mohrbacher

    February 4, 2016 at 12:24 pm

    I believe that active listening is huge when talking to students. It makes the students feel important and like their voices are being heard. It is also important to their social development.

  5. Jovana Combs

    February 6, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I agree that making a personal connection with your students is important. By making the personal connection, you are understanding your student as an individual. You can learn about their interests, their values, and their concerns. One of my favorite tips from the article is setting the context. Setting a stable environment for students to learn will make them more comfortable to open up to you.

  6. Linda Lopez

    February 7, 2016 at 8:24 am

    I enjoyed your article. In the third paragraph where you discuss the importance of listening I want to agree and add that, even at the high school level, I sometimes feel like a cross between a detective and (no disrespect intended)a veterinarian because I am frequently trying to figure out what is wrong from my barely-verbal patients (or at-risk students). I work with a cross section of the population and find that many teens are afraid to advocate for themselves for the slightest thing. Others think that they know what’s best for themselves but really have no clue. I find the most effective approach is similar to what Steven Covey recommends: seek first to understand, then to be understood. If I can let go of my preconceived ideas long enough to really determine what the problem is, then I can be truly helpful. More creative solutions occurs and situations are handled rather than regretted. Recently, I had a student make a series of odd requests: to turn down the heater, to go outside, and finally to allow him to call him mother. Turns out he was having an anxiety attack and instead of a major meltdown (as it might have been had I assumed he was merely engaging in off-task behavior) it was an obstacle overcome and his rapport with me increased. Listening is the root of the teaching tree.