On leadership and listening

Author Susan R. Andersen is an early childhood advisor, formally with the Iowa Department of Education. She has served on the Board of Directors of NAEYC, NAECS-SDE, Council for Professional Recognition and as a National Head Start Fellow. She has taught students in Head Start, Kindergarten and the early primary grades, college students and supervised student teachers in a variety of early childhood settings. She has worked with a number of states and CCSSO  as a consultant  for early childhood projects and is the co-author of ‘Reconnecting the World’s Children to Nature’. Most of the time, she would rather be in her kayak.

Carl R. Rogers wrote that we are all ‘becoming human’. Every day and every experience influences our growth toward ‘becoming a person’ and finding our sense of self. This also reflects the conscience of our profession: to ensure that every child has the most supportive environment in which to ‘become’ a loving, informed, healthy and decent human being.

It is noteworthy that we are so malleable for so long in our lives. Even at birth; there are few pieces of the human body that are fully formed. The exceptions, as Ernest Boyer often reminded his audiences, are the three small bones of the inner ear (stirrup, anvil and hammer). These are, in fact, the only bones that are fully formed at birth. For most of us, we could listen, hear and respond to the sound of our parent’s voices before we were born.

These two remarkable people, among many, continue to influence my thinking about professional responsibility. Carl Rogers’ reminder is that we should be continually growing, in every possible way because life is an ever-changing process. And Ernest Boyer suggests that we should always be listening. For me, these two life skills are interconnected.

To increase test scores or to be world class in math and science without empowering students or affirming the dignity of human life is to lose the essence of what we and education are presumably all about.

    –Ernest Boyer

Leaders never stop learning. In fact, leadership is often a continuum of questions. Finding answers and expanding your own understanding requires intentionality. Failure to expand your awareness only limits possibilities and partnerships. This means learning from everyone who chooses to talk to you. Each person brings a personal point of reference and it may not be in your own field of view, but you can listen to how things seem to others, the emotions that they hold, and then take time to reflect on what you have heard. You never know when a previous listening experience will surface as a piece of a solution to a current challenge. Listening to understand leads to learning.

Leaders with purpose constantly listen and learn. They listen to children, parents, teachers, those who challenge and those who encourage. Hopefully, they listen with their own ear of experience, but they also pause to listen to the unfamiliar. This requires listening with full awareness, respect, curiosity, and listening to understand the concerns behind the concerns. Inevitably, it means that you hear a constant noise of both positive and negative material. Sometimes the speed of information sharing is overwhelming and loud, and the skill of listening may soon be lost to the inhumanity of the Internet. The speed of the return comment often seems more important than really hearing the intent of the original message. Taking time to reflect and balance what you hear with your professional expertise will help you to make positive, intentional choices.

Our children are in motion. We happily note their changes and herald them as growth. In ourselves we seem less willing to notice, but we too are in motion, evolving and changing through our lives

                                           —Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, A Simpler Way

Listening to colleagues you respect is invaluable. They have navigated some of the same wide range of conundrums. Their work experiences can help you see options and opportunities. Remaining open to listening, asking, and sharing of yourself contributes to becoming better able to navigate challenging situations and making difficult decisions.

Listening can lead to partnerships, collaborations, negotiations and long term meaningful work. If you choose this path, you must hear fully your responsibilities and remain engaged throughout the entire project. If you have the good fortune to work with colleagues who are solid in intent and practice, thank them. Be glad to have such good fortune in your professional career and take the time to acknowledge this valuable, serendipitous part of your growth.

Eleanor Roosevelt often found herself facing very difficult decisions. She studied the meanings of her experiences and learned from them. She considered the ability to be constantly learning was one of her strongest assets. So, when she knew that there was not one single answer to a dilemma, she decided to follow her heart. “Do what you feel in your heart to be right–for you’ll be criticized anyway.”

If your progress leads you to a place that no longer allows you to be true to your core sense of purpose with integrity, honesty, and veracity it is time for a change. If you have challenged yourself and found no way to resolution through an ethical or authentic compromise, acknowledge your learning; be grateful for your opportunity of experience and find the next place in which you can learn and continue to grow. Listen to yourself.


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