How active listening in leadership can improve school climate and support teachers

A research-backed way to keep teachers from leaving the profession.

Teachers are exhausted from the rapid, chaotic changes of the past two years. They’re frustrated that despite their best efforts, the number of students performing below grade level has grown. And they’re demoralized by parents’ dissatisfaction, students’ emotional struggles, and the never-ending complications of the pandemic.

A strong sense of connection to their work is crucial for teachers, both new and veteran, and encourages a sense of belonging, community and retention. Yet, the Brookings Institute reported that in early 2021, a quarter of surveyed teachers were considering quitting at the end of the year. Despite the current challenges of teacher and staff retention, school leaders can ward off resignations by helping staff to feel connected with schools once more through what psychiatrists and neuroscientists term “co-regulation,” sharing their emotionally available presence with others.

Neuroscience research indicates that social engagement can calm negative emotional reactions and re-establish the feeling of connection between people, especially when you show that you’re emotionally available and interested in their ideas and concerns. A practice that enables district leaders to create those emotional bridges is what my organization refers to as emphathetic listening, also known as active listening leadership.

Meet conflict with compassion

Active listening requires non-judgmental listening in order to understand what is spurring others’ behavior. For example, when someone feels defensive or traumatized, their behavior can appear rough and edgy. If school leadership hopes to demonstrate active listening, they must remain aware of the recent social, emotional, and physiological changes that students and staff are carrying with them.

Active listening enables you to recognize the needs of a person who is being resistant, behaving defiantly, or is quick to shut down. Crisis Prevention Institute has found that the result is a better understanding of how to mitigate their distress and create an environment that feels welcoming and connected.

As school staff experience the benefits of active listening, they will then model the practice for students. As educators well know, students are observing adults in their lives and molding their reactions and behaviors in similar fashions; as their developing nervous systems acclimate to this extraordinary time in education, the adoption of active listening will support their growth and further improve the school climate.

Below are ways to facilitate active listening leadership:

1. Practice humility: Humility empowers us to recognize the humanity of people who don’t act like us, look like us, or hold different values and beliefs. Humility also enables us to take responsibility for our actions, learn from our interactions, and welcomes compromise.

This quality paves the way for listening to learn and for fostering new habits of collaboration. Our nervous systems change structurally and functionally with every experience, so as we adopt those habits, new neural connections form in the frontal regions of the cerebral cortex. Those connections enable us to be more creative, better synthesize information, regulate emotions, and empathize with others as we cultivate change.

Leaders’ humility typically manifests as validating the feelings of the person who’s speaking. That validation calms your staff’s stress responses so they can relax, share concerns at a deeper level, and feel connected in the workplace.

2. Ask questions: Active listening leadership requires leaders to ask questions that help others feel heard and valued. Below are a few examples I often utilize and find to be effective to facilitating communication:

  • What do you need right now that would ease your mind and help you thrive?
  •  How can I support you so that you are free to teach and lead in your building?
  • What can we do together to create an environment that feels equitable, and nurturing?
  • What are the professional challenges you are experiencing right now? How can I lessen those and work beside you?
  • What do you feel needs to be celebrated and expanded upon?

Co-regulation, coupled with awareness, has never been more critical for education leaders. Meeting colleagues, staff, and students where they are–while maintaining awareness of their own psychological state–allows leaders to effectively address discord so staff can tap into one another’s suggestions or strengths and make their schools an even better place.

AlGene Caraulia is the Crisis Prevention Institute’s vice president of integration and sustainability.

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