I decided to call the panel "Listening to Parents." As I began the organizing process last November, I was sure that "parents" was the important word in the title. After more than 20 years in teacher education, I had become frustrated and saddened by the attitudes of our undergraduate students toward parents. Although they were only 19- or 20-year-old freshmen or sophomores, our undergraduates already felt that they knew more about children and learning than the parents of their prospective students. They saw parents as annoying obstacles who contributed little to nothing to their children's education.
As a teacher educator who focuses on multicultural issues, I also realized that the attitudes of our mostly white, female, Christian middle-class students toward parents from backgrounds different from their own was even more troubling. From my own decades of experience and weekly meetings with my graduate-student teaching team, I knew that our 200 undergraduate students each semester—future teachers—believed that poor and working-class parents did not care about their child's education, that African-American children are taught "incorrect" English at home, and that Latino parents are uneducated simply because they speak Spanish.
My expectations for the panel were modest. I could not change my students' worldviews in one night, but I could at least put them in a room with parents from our community who they would not normally meet, and hope that for some, it might be helpful, for others, transformative.
So with the help of my graduate-student teaching team, I designed the panel for a night in mid-April, assuming that after almost an entire semester of our multicultural-education course, our students would be ready to listen to diverse perspectives on classrooms, education, and the complex relationships between teachers, parents, and children. I recruited a group of diverse local parents: an African-American single parent, a Jewish parent, a lesbian parent, and a Latino parent. A good start, I thought. Students, who were offered extra credit to attend, started streaming in at 5:30 p.m., and by the 6 p.m. start time, the 120-seat lecture hall was full and buzzing. One of the parents was sick and could not attend, but I still had three parents, most of my graduate-student teaching team, 120 undergraduates, and 90 minutes. A few minutes after 6 p.m., I stood up to quiet the group down and focus everyone's attention on the parents sitting in front of the room, who were eagerly (if nervously) waiting to begin.
I went through the list of ground rules: cellphones off, no texting, no tweeting. Ninety minutes of your life to concentrate on the parents and what experience and wisdom they could share in the brief time we had together. Each parent briefly introduced herself (the three parents were all women), and told the students about their lives, their families, their children, and their experiences in the local public schools.
At 6:30 p.m., I gradually began to shift my attention from the parents (who had started to relax) to the students. At that moment, I immediately realized that "parents" was not the most important word in the title. The word "listening"—which I had inserted at the last moment without much thought—was actually the key. As I scanned the room, I realized that my students had a difficult time with the simple act of listening.
They were as antsy, as bored, and as inattentive as my 5-year-old daughter would have been. In seeming desperation, they were looking for some way, any way, to speak up, to voice their opinion, to tell everyone in the lecture hall what they thought. But there was no way to do that. The panel was designed to center on the voices of the parents—not my undergraduate students.
After the initial introductions, the students had written questions on index cards for the parents, and the graduate students sorted through them, choosing the most important ones for me to read to the parents for their responses. A generation of students raised to believe that they, their opinions, their perspectives, and their lives were naturally and always at the center were silenced for 90 minutes: Their struggle was palpable. Unable to talk, to tweet, to update, to text, or to otherwise refocus attention on themselves, they were left with the one activity they felt was useless: listening. A student in the back row—one of the few men in the class—constantly tried to motion to me that he had to leave. I shook my head no, and only my (practiced) professorial glare kept him in his seat.
As I watched my students through the last hour of the panel, I began to understand how much more difficult my challenge is than I previously thought. "Listening" is at the center of an education: It takes many forms (visual, auditory, sensory), but is the only way to understand another's life and experience. But my students—and probably yours—have been taught the opposite. They have been raised in a culture that constantly reinforces that what is important about an education—and a life—is to express your opinions, to tell the world what you think. All day long, they text, they tweet, they post updates on their Facebook pages—all centered on them.
From the perspective of better engaging my students, perhaps what I should have done was try to locate a more technology-friendly room on campus, so that while the parents talked, my 21st-century students could have scribbled on their computers with their comments projected on a whiteboard on an overhead screen, or tweeted their reactions and questions so that everyone could see, or voted with a clicker on whether they agreed or disagreed with the parents.
But I'm glad I didn't. Part of an education, certainly in a democracy, is to learn how to express your own opinions and analysis; to make sense of the world around you, in order to fully act and participate. But the other critical aspect—the one in danger of disappearing—is listening.
I'm not sure what the students learned that night. Happily, my graduate students reported that class conversations over the next week were lively, engaged, and productive. However, I am clear as to what I learned: Without listening, we have no way to understand the world around us. Without listening, we cannot access lives, experiences, and beliefs that are different from our own. Teaching our students how to truly listen may be the most important multicultural lesson of all.
Nadine Dolby is an associate professor of curriculum studies at Purdue University. Her latest book is Rethinking Multicultural Education for the Next Generation: The New Empathy and Social Justice (Routledge, 2012).