Redefining School Culture With Listening
The authors vouch for a process that hears the voices of students, teachers and administrators equally for building a responsive climate

Patty Jensen, principal of Lone Mountain Elementary in Cave Creek, Ariz., points to the importance of listening to the teacher and student in any given scenario.
An elementary school teacher with well-established classroom routines for instruction is about halfway through the school year when a new student arrives, disrupting the learning environment with challenging behavioral, social and emotional needs.

The teacher, after unsuccessfully trying to deal with the new student in her classroom, resolves the problem by sending the student to receive specialized support for the full school day. With the student gone from the classroom, the teacher resumes her regular instructional practices. The challenging student receives her learning in a restrictive environment. Although her academic needs are being met, two negative consequences also ensue: The social and emotional gap between her and her peers widens, and differences are marginalized.

How might this situation have been approached differently?

An Equal Hearing

Episodes like these — a real one observed by one of us (Jensen) while working as an elementary school principal — are troubling, especially where empowering student voices is a goal.

A common misconception is that disruptive students need to receive specialized instruction. Actually, a continuum of educational services exists for students, and the goal ought to be to use such services in a manner that allows students to learn in the classroom with their peers to the greatest extent possible.

Despite administrative efforts to communicate this philosophy of instruction, a teacher’s use of specialized instruction often becomes a crutch to make teaching easier for the instructor and learning easier for the students. Teachers worry that other students in the classroom will pick up on the atypical behavior or that parents will complain if the teacher does not intervene to stop the disruptive child.

How can school leaders protect the integrity of students’ learning without eroding the teachers’ confidence in themselves or their leaders?

We see an answer in using leadership practices based on rhetorical listening. Rhetorical listening, in this situation, provides an equal hearing to the voices of students, teachers and administrators to create school cultures where everyone feels not only heard but also connected, competent and in control.

What is Rhetorical Listening?

Developed by one of us (Ratcliffe), rhetorical listening is a stance of openness that one may adopt when confronting different or competing perspectives. It invites listeners to focus on both the claims and the cultural logics within which the claims function. (A cultural logic is simply a way of reasoning common to a group of people.)

In practice, rhetorical listening asks listeners to pause, lay individuals’ competing claims side by side, reflect on the reasoning (or cultural logics) that supports each claim and then use this understanding to negotiate differences.

Rhetorical listening does not demand that listeners accept all perspectives as truth. Rather, it encourages listeners to attempt to understand how people reason both as individuals and as members of cultural groups. Indeed, it asks listeners to reflect on how people think and why they embrace their own perspectives as truth.

By acknowledging competing perspectives, rhetorical listening allows listeners to analyze disagreements and misunderstandings across individuals and cultures in the hope of finding common ground on which to negotiate differences.

Listening to the Teacher

The outcome of the opening scenario might have played out differently if the following key steps of rhetorical listening had been employed.

First, to adopt a stance of openness, the principal in the opening scenario would have had to accept that the teacher’s actions are reasonable within the teacher’s cultural logic. The view that specialized instruction is a tool for classroom management would count as a cultural logic. If the principal had listened to the teacher’s claim (“remove the student from the classroom”) and cultural logic (“because such students are disruptive to classroom management and learning”), the principal would have been able to understand the instructor’s perspective and to conceptualize the problem more broadly within other cultural logics.

The principal’s acceptance of the teacher’s reasoning would have been easier if she had first listed variables outside the teacher’s control that influence the decision-making process. Such variables might include increasing classroom size or a lack of professional experience to support efficient classroom management. With these variables in hand, the principal then would have met with the teacher to discuss the reasoning behind her decision. During the meeting, the principal could have asked open-ended questions so that the teacher felt comfortable sharing her perspective. For example, the principal might have asked: “Which of the student’s behaviors do you find most concerning?” As the teacher talked, the principal would have recorded her responses.

Listening to the Student

The principal then would be ready to listen to the student. To grant the student a fair hearing, the principal first would list known variables outside of the student’s control. Because students are not always able to name the factors that influence their behaviors, creating this list often requires the principal to research the child’s educational history.

The effectiveness of students’ educational histories depends on the system used to collect the data. To ensure that schools provide immediate support that is responsive to students’ needs, principals should create a system for building and reviewing educational records that goes far beyond the records clerk transferring data into the student information system. 

An effective system builds an ethnographic account of the known variables in the child’s educational and familial history. Knowing these variables ensures that the guidance counselor, reading and math specialists, English language teacher, special education psychologist and administrators can speak to one another and thus listen with greater purpose to what the student might not be able to fully articulate. In the absence of such a system, student support teams often draw simplified conclusions about a student’s behaviors, which hampers a student’s ability to voice her or his perspective, even within a listening environment.

Once the principal had collected the student’s educational history, she then would ask the student open-ended questions so as to triangulate the student’s voice with the teacher’s voice and the child’s educational history. For example, the principal might ask: “What do you need from your teacher, from the administrators, from the school counselors and/or from the specialists you work with in order to learn?” As the student talks, the principal would place her responses alongside the teacher’s.

Laying the student’s responses alongside the teacher’s voice and the student’s educational history is important for three reasons: (1) Not all atypical behaviors are symptomatic of deeper problems — the student might simply be misbehaving; (2) Not all motivating factors are recorded in the student’s educational history — as traumas occur in real time, administrators need to collect data actively in order to support their students; and (3) Not all recorded data from the student’s educational history is accurate.
 Krista Ratcliffe, an English professor at Arizona State University, says her research on rhetorical listening can be used to improve school culture.

Negotiating Differences

Once the principal had collected the student’s response, she would return to the teacher to examine the differences in the teacher’s and the student’s perspectives as well as the reasoning that supports them. Using rhetorical listening as a data-collection tactic would help the teacher see that the principal does not privilege either perspective.

Such recognition would enable the teacher to remain open to acknowledging any negative consequences that she may have unintentionally produced while trying to maintain her ideal of a comfortable, orderly classroom. In addition, such recognition would allow the teacher to interpret the student’s behavior with greater insight and understanding.

Having established this common ground between the teacher’s and student’s perspectives, the principal and the teacher then would develop an action plan that responds to the teacher’s needs while empowering the student’s voice. The goal is a win-win scenario.

Listening to School and District Culture

Rhetorical listening can be implemented at any level of K-12 education. Research by one of us (Jensen) suggests that central-office colleagues sometimes struggle to understand how their policy recommendations affect school cultures.

For example, to measure a school’s culture or climate, district administrators will ask teachers to complete anonymous surveys about the campus leadership team. Then they typically will present survey data to campus administrators without walking through the campus to triangulate their findings. Although the need to conduct such surveys remotely is an efficient data collection method, it is not always the most effective method for gauging school culture. Some research shows this data-collection method often creates as many cultural problems as it solves.

If administrators at all levels were to develop the habit of listening to student and teacher perspectives, they would be able to solve such unintentional problems by triangulating student and teacher voices with the survey findings. Doing so would allow all stakeholders to identify more effectively where common ground exists and thus solve core classroom problems.

Rhetorical listening helps everyone observe that a stance open to multiple ways of reasoning, combined with a commitment to equitable documentation, can remove the barriers that unwittingly prevent every voice from contributing to our learning environments.

PATTY JENSEN is principal of Lone Mountain Elementary in Cave Creek, Ariz.  KRISTA RATCLIFFE is a professor and chair of the English department at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

Additional Resources
To learn more about rhetorical listening and its application to K-12 schooling, the authors suggest these two works:

»Helping Children Succeed: What Works and Why by Paul Tough. See chapters 15-22 in particular.
»Rhetorical Listening: Identification, Gender, Whiteness by Krista Ratcliffe. Read chapters 1 and 5.