Schools Can Change, But Only When Leaders Learn How to Listen

column | Leadership

Schools Can Change, But Only When Leaders Learn How to Listen

By Reshan Richards (Columnist) and Stephen J. Valentine (Columnist)     Oct 25, 2021

Schools Can Change, But Only When Leaders Learn How to Listen

Nicole Furlonge is perhaps best at helping us to forget what we think we know about listening and leadership. A professor and director of the Klingenstein Center at the Teachers College, Columbia University, Furlonge’s work centers on how to become a better listener, and by extension, a better leader.

Listening-leadership is not a simple default, and it is not to be confused with silence. It is a genuine, multilayered repertoire that can be applied by leaders looking to serve others, to build communities and to meet uncertainty.

Nicole Furlonge

Listening-leaders proceed with humility, integrity, and precision—just what we need at a time when schools are back in session but certainly not in the clear in terms of all that we grappled with during the 2020-2021 year. A solid year of skillful listening should be on every leader’s agenda. Furlonge is an essential guide and resource.

Earlier this year, we spoke about the deep background of Furlonge’s work with what she calls “listening leadership.” In this followup conversation, we explore the practical applications, limits and future of listening in schools and adjacent organizations.

Listening is an active practice for school leaders

Furlonge: Listening is a prioritized skill and capacity. It positions leaders to grapple with what it means to center inquiry in their practice, what it means to tune into all the constituents for whom they’re responsible. And then to filter, make sense and make decisions with that information. As listening leaders, we’re reminded that we have to tune in to others’ growth edges, to their capacity, to their efficacy.

Anytime we start this work with a cohort at the Klingenstein Center, students say, “Oh yeah, we know...You don’t just go in and change everything, you wait.” That is a misunderstanding about listening. It’s true, you don’t go in and bulldoze everything for your own agenda. But listening is actually a really active practice. The very act of listening signals to other people how you’re entering that space and gives you a way to actively be alive in that space as you make sense of things, as you connect with others.

The listening-leader’s repertoire

Furlonge: Listening is a dynamic repertoire of practices as opposed to one kind of skill that we practice in the same way all the time. For example, active listening is wonderful when it helps people ask, "How do I tend to a moment?” or “How am I attentive?" But it can also become kind of performative.

If we were to stay with the usual descriptors, active listening is a part of listening practice, but so is responsive listening. That is the responsiveness of being in a moment and being mindful enough to think about questions such as:

  • What are the different dynamics that are happening here?
  • How do I give myself space to make sense of them?
  • How do I check in with people so that I’m not assuming what they just said but making sure I understand the implications?
  • How am I getting in my own way as I listen?

There are layers to this practice that involve more than just one way of listening. There are listening practices that make us more aware of the dynamics that we’re encountering and the filters that we bring to any situation by virtue of the fact that we are human and we engage the world through filters.

The key is: How can we become more aware of those filters so that we’re mitigating bias or we’re being open to a conversation that might be challenging for us or we’re willing to give feedback to people in ways that they can hear it? Those are practical spaces in which listening might show up.

Listening as a way to more fully grasp the whole

Furlonge: We often filter based on comfort or ease, but a filter can also be our questions, those that allow us to parse through. The point is to engage in order to disaggregate, to make deeper sense in order to find a different way of thinking, and ultimately, the truth.

That’s part of what I appreciate about the writers that I curated in my book “Race Sounds.” In Toni Morrison’s “Jazz,” for example, her narrator tells the book’s story for the whole novel, and in the end says, “I did a horrible job. I created these characters because I had assumptions about them, and I got it all wrong.”

For me the position of not knowing is vital in listening because there’s always something else to pay attention to. More often we can say to ourselves, “I’ve noticed this, I’ve tuned into this area. But if I’m tuning in here, there’s a lower frequency that I might be missing.” Or “I’m always not getting the whole thing and I need other listeners with me to create more of a full sense of the whole.”

I think culturally we tend to downplay the listener. We have this notion that it’s the passive place to be, or if you’re listening you’re not really participating or taking action. What I want emerging leaders to understand is that, in order to truly lead, one must be tuned in to the space in which they’re called to lead. Otherwise, you don’t know what you’re leading around or who you’re leading around or for whom you’re leading.

During the pandemic, I started doing some work with museums. These institutions still existed, but no one could go to them. What was really interesting about museums at that moment is that they started asking questions like, “What does it mean to be an institution when the very people you serve can’t come to you?” and “How do you still serve and what is your public face in a moment like that?”

They then began to listen in to their constituencies, and even in that world, to begin to unearth what it means to be a patron of the arts and how that’s accessible or not, either in perception or in reality.

And so some museums—like some schools—began thinking about and reimagining how they then show up in the world that they are in as opposed to asserting who they are against the world they’re in or despite the world they’re in.

On the importance of separating silence from listening in the post-George Floyd school and society

Furlonge: Post-George Floyd’s murder, there’s this incredible demand to speak. If you don’t speak up, your silence speaks in a different way. What I want to make clear is that listening is different from the figure of silence that shows up in this discourse.

One must be quiet in order to listen. But listening isn’t silence. Listening isn’t absence. Listening in order to end up with a voice, as a leader, as an institution that resonates with the challenges of this moment, is what’s important. Instead of saying what first pops up, I suggest taking stock of what the work actually is so that your voice is even more robust than it would be otherwise.

After George Floyd, we saw people and institutions make their first statements, and that was important. But then, what does the work sound like after that? When we only make a statement, and then go back to business as usual, and then something else happens, and we make another statement, and then we go back to business as usual, that’s an unbalanced approach because we’re not then taking our statements, our aspirations for systemic change, and putting them into action.

We can think about this as a system of engagement that goes back to the idea of logos, the balancing of speaking and listening. We need the voice. We also need the listening to keep making sure that we’re not only addressing the very issues we have now, but also listening forward to what a more equitable, inclusive future could be.

On the limits of listening

Furlonge: I’m a pretty optimistic person, even in difficult times. But I also know that listening uncovers the improbable, the impossible, the seemingly intractable challenges that we encounter.

Listening is not Pollyanna-ish. It uncovers the possible but also helps us to recognize that in the world we want to change, there are places that are not going to budge or are going to be immensely challenging to move.

Listening as a practice is obviously one that I would want to be dynamic. We also have to recognize that being embedded in a listening practice involves recognizing the moments when you need to turn to something else or to someone else’s listening as opposed to your own.

On the importance of tuning in to timelines and systems

Furlonge: Part of tuning into people as a leader—as a listening leader—is being mindful that there are different timelines happening. We talk about “the faculty” as if there’s just one homogeneous group. Instead, we have faculties. Everyone in every room, in their seat, comes into a meeting with a different attitude, a different propensity, a different willingness to want to be there. Tired, not tired, kids at home or in another room, on Zoom.

I appreciate that schools want to improve hiring, for instance. There are a few quick improvements a school might be able to make in the short term. But what about looking at hiring away from an immediate need to hire? How would that lower the temperature of the room a little bit, allow us to take in some data around, say, our last three to five years of hiring practices? Because the thing that we say we’re trying to change might not even be the area we need to change.

If we think about schools as ecosystems, they have different modes of development, of growth, of germination; they have different seasons, even. And so how do we become more mindful of those ebbs and flows, the currents, the movements through the ecosystem and what needs tending to now versus later?

On the move from the English classroom to Educational Leadership and its future

Furlonge: When I first came to my role at the Klingenstein Center, part of my consideration was leaving the English classroom. That’s my world. I make sense of the world through books and writing. I really felt a deep connection to surprising students by saying, “You’re not just scanning the page, you’re listening to it; you’re bringing your full experience to this text.” I wondered if I was ever going to be able to talk about literature and listening again. Not, “How am I going to make it?” but “How might this be an authentic space of inquiry for leaders?”

Being in the education-leadership space has allowed me to think about how that could happen. I’ve also started teaching a listening course at Columbia’s Medical School. Their students take Narrative Medicine literature courses to learn how to be better doctors, interestingly enough.

In these spaces, I’ve been able to think about what it means to authentically engage this work—through literature, through culture, through music—in order to get people to ask, “What could the value of listening practices be to my leadership practice? To my being in the world?”

It’s been a wonderful experience to be able to listen into the work I was doing in one space in a way that has allowed me to see possibilities, at least, and how they might play out in school leadership. We’ll see where it goes from here. Let’s listen for how this work starts showing up in schools.

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