Developing Good Listening Skills (for teachers and managers)

A definition of a good listener (Cambridge Dictionaries Online): “Someone who gives you a lot of attention when you are talking about your problems or things that worry you, and tries to understand and support you”.

There is a lot of literature directed at teachers on how to help students to develop their listening skills, there are course books which take students through carefully staged exercises which help them to work on these skills and, as teachers, we attend workshops and seminars on how to make “listening” easier for our students. We help them to develop techniques to get the gist of a conversation or monologue, we help them to listen out for specific information and we encourage them to respond appropriately to spoken information in different contexts.

However, recently I have been wondering about how effectively we, as teachers, DOSes, school administrators and managers in general, listen to our clients. Do we have and do we practise the effective listening skills we work so hard at getting our students to develop? Are we “demand-high” in our expectations of ourselves in terms of developing and perfecting our listening skills? And if we’re not, shouldn’t we be? (see for Jim Scrivener and Adrian Underhill’s blog on Demand-high ELT).

I recently attended an inspiring plenary given by Jim Scrivener on Demand-high ELT. Many of the points he made about their observations of current teaching practises overlapped with my belief that somewhere along the way we have stopped really listening to our clients. There are probably many reasons for this. Picking up on many of Jim Scrivener’s points, maybe this is to do with the fact that we now have access to great course books so why listen to our students’ opinions of them, we know they are good.  Maybe this is because a lot of us work for quality language schools (with quality assurance stamps to boot) which prove that we know what we are doing so why listen to our clients’ opinions of what we are doing (if we’ve ticked all those boxes, we must be doing it right). Maybe it’s because we’ve done our CELTA, DELTA, Masters etc, attended workshops, been in the industry for a long time and just “know” what is best for our students.

If we ignore the importance of having an effective set of listening skills, surely we are missing out on an opportunity to become better teachers, better managers, better schools and in turn have more satisfied customers?

Let’s look at a few examples:

Jim Scrivener brought up the example of organising a discussion activity. The activity is set up, the students talk about the topic together, maybe there is some feedback by the teacher on use of language and possibly a polite: “Did you enjoy that?” “Did you find that useful?” To which a few polite students will answer: “yes, thank you”. I doubt that the teacher no more expected the students to give them a sincere and meaningful answer than did the students expect to truthfully and meaningfully answer it.  But then, what a tragic missed opportunity for meaningful communication which could have given rise to a real awareness of students’ needs and frustrations both in terms of learning and teaching as enjoyment and the fulfilment of expectations of a discussion activity.

Many schools, classes, teachers ask their clients to fill out questionnaires about the school, teacher, classroom, course book etc. Well-designed questionnaires are a great way of getting feedback on our clients’ opinions of the service we offer. But, consider the following:

  1. When are clients typically required to complete questionnaires? At the end of the course, when little can be done to deal with any issues with that client in that class with that teacher.
  2. When we do make changes in line with feedback received, do we ever tell our clients that we are doing this? Maybe we are listening to our clients, but do they know we are listening?

I think there may be an exception with Dogme practitioners. It seems to me that gifted Dogme practitioners by definition have to be great listeners. So, maybe if teachers were allowed and even encouraged to move away from following the syllabus, course books and ticking boxes, this would be a start in helping teachers to develop more effective listening skills and as a consequence be more in tune with their students’ voices (experts in Dogme, please correct me if I am wrong).

If we go back to the definition of a good listener at the beginning of this post, do we  (teachers, DOSes, school administrators and managers) honestly “give our clients a lot of attention when they are talking about their problems or things that worry them, and try to understand and support them”? If our clients don’t perceive we are listening to them (even if we are), then we really aren’t being good listeners and are missing great opportunities for providing customer satisfaction and good public relations.

The following is a true story and hopefully a good example of what I am trying to say:

The result: a very satisfied customer!