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  • Matthew Emerson

Education & The Art of Listening: Reflections of a Substitute Teacher


"When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen." ~Ernest Hemingway

Today's article is written by a guest author, Vincent Wise. Wise is a graduate student at California University of Pennsylvania, where he specializes in Secondary Education and Social Studies.


How many of you have had a Substitute Teacher in High School and you took that opportunity to ignore what is being asked of you; even to go as far as disrespecting that Substitute Teacher?


If any of you said yes, no judgement, I know I did, and not only one or two occasions, but on almost every occasion. On one of these particular occasions a teacher was Subbing for my Tenth Grade Science Teacher, and she wasn’t very good at controlling the classroom. My friends and I had the idea to have some fun with this teacher and see if she would notice if pencils started appearing in the ceiling. By the end of the period over one hundred pencils had been stuck in that poor ceiling and she was none the wiser.


There have been plenty of other times where students have tortured substitute teachers, or even in the case of the High School Science teacher (who is no longer at my Alma Mater), someone decided to take all his Crawfish (around 15-20) and throw them out the window . Each of these Teachers have had some issue with controlling their students, me included, and each of these teachers have been defeated by this problem. Why does a collective of students, some of which were the teacher’s pets type, become unruly with substitutes and what could subs do to change that?

In January of 2017 I started substitute teaching at my Alma Mater, the place where I cut my teeth in the ritual torturing of Substitute Teachers, and as I walked in for my first day of Subbing I was prepared to do my penance. I had fully expected every student to leave the classroom or act out like crazy when I started but instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a classroom of eighth graders, who of which some of the other teachers warned me about, weren’t as bad as expected. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were loud and some of them were unruly but nothing like what I had done to my past teachers was happening. Eventually I had to substitute Seventh Graders (and they were Hellions) but most of my time subbing has been a fairly pleasant experience. I was discovering fast that a lot of these kids were me, or at least what I remember about myself at their age and so I almost instantaneously started treating them like I think I would have liked to have been treated, novel concept. Now everytime I sub they beg me to be their teacher for that day, for just one hour. To me that’s insane; but I think I know why.


In order to explore why I think this became true, I want to use three, real, examples of students that I have had in the past. (The Names Chosen are not the real names.) 1. Caleb: Day one of my substitute teaching this young, extremely pale, curly haired eighth grader rolls in and starts making jokes and acting out memes. Funnily enough he was wearing an extremely obnoxious looking Rick and Morty hoodie that day. Recognizing potential threat of stability in my classroom I say, “Hi,” to this particular student and then pointed out that he has a “neat Rick and Morty hoodie on.” Then he proceeds to do a meme (which I honestly forget which one it was) and I finish it. Eventually he sits down and starts chatting with me, cause now he’s met some weirdo teacher who watches Rick and Morty and knows the wacky memes, and guess what the kids extremely smart and has the beginners brain for someone interested in learning philosophy. Now Caleb is always excited to see me, and him and I always make jokes but I always make sure to attempt to give some meaning to our conversation, and he loves it. Other teachers were fascinated when I said I really like him and am excited to see where he goes in life. I can’t imagine what his life would be like if there weren’t people in it to stimulate it. (More on this later.)

2. Allie: I haven’t had to deal with bullying much in my time as a Substitute Teacher and I’m very thankful for that. I’ve only had two occasions where some sort of physical bullying took place, a fight broke out between two boys; and a girl was having things thrown at her. Now you can imagine how I felt after I had learned this girl was being bullied and I hadn’t noticed, if I had known I would have instantly put a stop to it but I hadn’t. Now Ally is an emotional girl and she is also easy to make fun of, and I know for a fact that when I was in High School I used to (be her) and make fun of people like her. In this case I was Substituting for this English Teacher for three days (and I actually had the opportunity to really teach a class). One day a boy was making paper airplanes and was beaming them into the back of Allie’s head. I hadn’t noticed this taking place, and I am pretty lenient on the use of Paper Airplanes (as long as they’re cleaned up by the end of the period). It wasn’t until the end of the day (long after Allie’s period had been done with) that a few of her classmates came to me and asked if I noticed how she had been treated. I hadn’t noticed, and now I felt terrible.


On Day 2, I started the class out by ordering that no paper airplanes be made or I will have that student sent to the office. I also rearranged the seating arrangement in order to try and ensure that she wouldn’t get attacked by the other students. After teaching the lesson and having the students work on what the teacher left behind the bell rang, and I personally asked Allie to stay behind. She seemed extremely upset, because apparently the bullying continued (before and during class). So I had her sit down and tell me how she was feeling and I asked her about herself. Now during our conversation I learned a few horrible things, one she’s constantly bullied and two she was contemplating killing herself. (I would later inform the authorities.) I instantly made sure that I listened to what she was saying and asked her about her friends, and I even told her about how some other students came to me and asked that I help her. The conversation lasted my whole prep period; and I accidentally got her out of going to Math, but in it I learned a lot about her. At the end of the day I saw her standing at the door waiting for the bus, and I stopped and said hi and asked how she was doing. And now everytime I sub I make sure to catch her before she leaves for the day and she always has a smile on her face when she sees me. And that warms my heart greatly.


3. Michael: I want to premise this with, I know almost nothing about Mathematics. I’m literally inept when it comes to numbers. One day I was subbing for a Ninth Grade Math class and had a student, Michael, who is one of those Attention Deficit Students, he even had an aid who was there to help him and a few other students do their work. Now Michael was being disruptive to the other students and the aid was doing absolutely nothing to help him. So I call him over and ask him how much work he had done. I already knew the answer was none, so I made a deal with him. “Do the questions on the worksheet and I will let you play Fortnite.” While the incentive was enough to get him to start, he struggled with the work. I decided to do the only thing I knew how to do when teaching something like this (something I learned from my parents). I sat down next to him, and worked with him. Instead of giving him the answers I actively guided him through the procedure of doing the problems, making him answer the questions. My mom and dad would do this with me when teaching me a new task, and as Michael would learn, often you are better at something than you originally thought. Now obviously one intervention didn’t save his whole education, but every once in a while I see the kid, and he tells people “That’s the sub who taught me how to do math.” I think there’s a bit of a theme in these three cases that I think is the same problem I suffered in my education and what a lot of Americans suffer in their education and maybe society as a whole.

We’ve all forgotten how to listen.

Imagine that? A whole country of people who can’t listen. Listening is being attentive to another person. Listening is comprehending the many different languages a person speaks (body, emotion, voice). Listening is allowing the person speaking the respect they deserve to be the most important thing to you in that very moment. Listening is how we connect with one another and how we build relationships and determine what we know about each other. When a person speaks to you, they are now the only thing your attention deserves. There’s a reason our parents yell at us when we have cell phones at the table, that’s the place where we talk and listen to each other’s day.

We must recover the lost art of listening.

In listening to a student and giving them the power to be themselves and express themselves I was able to build a relationship with them and thus they began to respect me. In a lot of ways by showing them how I listen they began to listen and I think they became a little better at it. Imagine, like in Caleb’s case, no one listened to you your whole education. I think that’s what happens a lot of the time for people. Students’ academic success is often measured by arbitrary numbering systems but sometimes students express intelligences in many different ways. Some who are “Hands On” type of people, who would do well in activities like building or farming, are being forced into this semi-academic path at High Schools. Or imagine students who are Academically minded ones. Students, like Caleb, have the ability to think philosophically, they’re often forced to learn the generic education and often sometimes their abilities are hidden behind a wall because no one has given them the opportunity to actually express their true abilities. It’s because Teachers are not listening to their wants and needs. But what is this listening I am writing about?

We need to listen as if the other person actually has something to say.

For Teachers, listen to your students, they’re crying out for help. Don’t let their abilities be snuffed out of existence by our inability to understand them. Listen to them when they talk to you. Meet with them individually, and build that relationship with them. It means the world to them, even if they initially act like it isn’t.


Please just LISTEN.


Special thanks to Vincent Wise, our guest author this week, for sharing his insight with us. Wise is a scholar in the areas of Secondary Education and Social Studies.


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