First, We Listen

Sometime ago, a student came into my office and he spoke with passion about how he wished people would greet each other in the hallways. His eyes began to tear up as he described what I began to imagine was a community behaving in interdependent ways, each person having personal regard for others. What the student described was a community where the culture was not only one of excellence, but also of extraordinary care. This one meeting led to meetings with his entire class, to honest and insightful conversations between students, teachers and school leaders. Those students have since graduated, and they’ve left behind a tremendous legacy.

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Responses to the students’ legacy, 2017.

When we think about cultures of interdependence and reciprocity, what do we target as the work we must do to create conditions where each person feels valued? In their book How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work, Kegan and Lahey (2001) state, “We all do better at work if we regularly have the experience that what we do matters, that it is valuable, and that our presence makes a difference to others.” The authors name a social language of support and how this underpins giving value to another with ongoing personal regard. How do we create a place where a person’s thinking adds to the fabric of a supportive, growth-producing ecosystem?

We want a learning ecosystem where the ways we talk with one another produce trust. A prime goal of our conversations is the personal development of the learner. In our conversations, we seek to shape, change and examine attitudes and values with our valued colleagues and students, which these learners then use as catalytic motivation for learning. The relationships are based on relational trust (Bryk and Schneider, 2002). Relational trust is developed through the interpersonal social exchanges that take place in the school community and is built on four capacities: respect, competence, personal regard for others, and integrity (Costa and Garmston, 2013).

  • Respect is valuing the role each person plays in a child’s education and being genuinely listened to.
  • Competence is how well a person performs a role.
  • Personal regard is the perception of how one goes beyond what is required of his/her role in caring for another person.
  • Integrity is the consistency between what people say and what they do.

The work we are thinking about is not the organization of things. We do this work on things as a matter of course in a school – developing curriculum, managing time, instruction, assessment. The work we are thinking about is the cultural work: How we do what we do in the ways we do them.

Second, We Listened Better

We think of ourselves as mentors for our students and for each other. Mentoring is defined as a nurturing, “one-to-one, non-judgmental relationship in which an individual mentor gives time and support to encourage a student or peer” (Miller, 2004, p. 28). It is a process which helps people grow towards their personal vision; it is supportive and protective of learning; and it involves the adult role-modeling valuable decision making processes and other Approaches to Learning toward self-directedness. Mentoring deliberately engages teachers and students in ongoing, caring relationships through practice of the behaviors drawing upon reciprocity and interdependence.

Our identities as mentors make us people who understand the often complex links between a student’s knowledge, skills and attitudes; academic performance and personal life; motivation, classroom performance and achievement; career aspirations, self-esteem and self-confidence. We provide guidance on social-emotional skills as approaches to successful learning.

The list of what a mentor understands is complex. How will we ever understand all these dimensions of each person?

Changing the ways we talk meant becoming better at listening. We recognize that we have developed listening habits which mostly need to be set aside, such as listening only so we can say, “Me, too,” and launch into our own autobiographical anecdotes; listening only so we can fix things for the other person; listening only because of curiosity (Costa and Garmston, 2016). We learned how to use listening through Cognitive CoachingSM to support a person’s thinking.

Coaching as a support function. Photo by Airdone. Used with permission.

This week, a colleague had a conversation with a student who was planning what he wanted to accomplish this year. At the end of the conversation, in reflection, he said, “It’s not often someone asks me what I’m thinking. This helped me realize that I like to achieve. I also know there’s a lot I could change, behavior like putting things off. But today I know if I keep in mind the feeling of achievement, I’m more likely to work toward it. Thanks for listening.”

Working on the work means that we become intentional in learning and rehearsing the norms of collaboration (Garmston and Wellman, 2015) of pausing, paraphrasing and posing questions. These three norms support the ways we become better at listening.

We know that our cultural work is complex work. It is capacity-building work that lasts for as long as people in our community are growing. It’s not easily reduced to an algorithm or a technical change in a system. So we know that we need to persist and presume positive presuppositions of one another each and every day. We also recognize that our work lives in each conversation.

In that one conversation that we might have today, someone feels valued, and we build trust.


Bryk, A., and Schneider, B. (2002). Trust in schools: A core resource for improvement. NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Costa, A. and Garmston, R. (2013). Cognitive coaching; Developing self-directed leaders and learners (3 Ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. (2016). The adaptive school; A sourcebook for developing collaborative groups (3Ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Miller, A. (2004). Mentoring Students and Young People: A Handbook of Effective Practice [Kindle iOS version]. Retrieved from

Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

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