Darlington School: Supporting Teens at School: Why We Must Stop Hearing & Begin Listening
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Supporting Teens at School: Why We Must Stop Hearing & Begin Listening

John Zazzaro | April 22, 2015 | 366 views

As a teacher, coach and dorm parent, I often overhear conversations between students. It makes me think back to when I started my teaching career many years ago. I had an older coach tell me that one of his favorite parts of the job was to ride the bus home from a game. He would say, “If you want to know what is really going on in this school, ride the bus home after a Friday night game.” 

I know now what he meant. Most teachers or parents know that as you “overhear” the conversations in the back seat, around the lunch room, or in the dorm, you find out all kinds of juicy tidbits.

One of the things I struggle with sometimes as a head of house is when to stop hearing and begin listening. Recently, I was having a conversation with a colleague about how teachers don’t always know when to step in and get more involved when they suspect that a student may be having issues (many do, but some are not as comfortable). They might hear a conversation between students and think it a little odd, strange or even scary. But they may not act because they just aren’t sure how to progress or where to take the information.

All too often, an adult may fail to act because they are fearful that their motives will be questioned by parents and that they will lose the students' trust. I admit that there have been times throughout my own career that I have had students and parents upset with me because I asked too many questions or went to a counselor or administrator. Parents would question the purpose of reporting a conversation and find it accusatory of their child. I also know that many students saw me differently after I reported something. 

I understand how both parties could feel this way. I think that parents might get angry or protective out of fear or misunderstanding. They might assume that teacher just misunderstood their child or that the child told a little white lie. Parents might even fear that their child might get in trouble with the school. I’m sure students are equally fearful of the adults around them finding out secrets or issues they would want to keep to themselves.

But sometimes I stop hearing and begin listening. As a head of house, I hear things all the time that we just write off as routine day-to-day teenage stuff. But sometimes when I listen, I find out that it is more. Like the boy who is joking about his latest haircut and is laughing it off with his friends, but really has low self-esteem and is just laughing the pain away. 

Or, there’s the other student in the lounge yelling on the phone to his mother about how boring it is here and how there is nothing to do, but when you listen closer you know he hasn’t made any friends and feels alone. Then there is the young man who doesn’t come to house parties and refuses to be in pictures who, after a deeper look, you find has an eating disorder. These may sound extreme, but you wouldn’t know if you didn’t do anything.

As much as I hear things throughout the day from students, there are times when I don’t listen closely enough. When I catch myself doing this, I think of Blair. Blair was a young man that many people could hear, but not enough listened. I first met Blair 10 years ago when he was in seventh grade at the school I was working at during that time. He was my advisee. We got to be close friends; we talked, laughed, ate lunch together and even played fantasy football. 

He was my advisee for two years and then moved on to high school. And now, I realize -- like most of his high school teachers -- that I probably heard Blair, I probably even wondered about Blair, but I never listened closely enough to get more involved. One fall morning when Blair was in 10th grade, he woke up late for school. He realized no one was at home. He went into the gun safe and he took his own life.

The community was shocked and devastated. His friends were angry, emotional and inconsolable. As time went by, I along with many students and teachers opened up about their concerns for Blair. I just wish we had had the conversations before his death.

I think of Blair often. His story reminds me of the risk I take every time I listen in on a conversation and do something about it. Parents might get angry, students might think I’m a snitch, but I don’t care. My hope is that all teachers, coaches and parents have this same belief. 

Stop hearing and begin listening. And, if your concerned, talk with the student or get a counselor, teacher, coach, church member or anyone else involved. And, parents, if someone gets involved and questions your child and tries to dig deeper with your child, be thankful that they care enough to listen.