Listen to the Thing: How to Find True Transformation in Education

Feedback gets a good rap. We know we’re supposed to give it, and it’s claimed to be a ticket to becoming a great manager.

At EP, we celebrate “saying the thing” as an important mantra that gives us responsibility to speak candidly because we believe feedback is critical to advancing our work.

But to me, saying the thing is only half the equation. What happens after?

As people who work together on behalf of children, we have an equal responsibility to truly listen to each other. The responsibility for listening is great because we’re dealing with fundamental issues of social justice, equity, and inclusion. 

Without listening, we get nowhere.

And I’m not talking about just hearing the words someone is saying. Instead, when we listen, we take in someone’s words, are curious about what they’re saying, and probe deeper to understand why they’re saying it.

Listening deeply means you hear what someone is saying or asking—and you’re sensitive to what they’re not saying.

When I think about the enormity of events happening across the nation each day – from racism on university campuses and lethal violence against people of color to entrenched power systems – I see a responsibility to listen, to learn, to reflect, and ultimately to act thoughtfully in solidarity with those whose voices aren’t often given rise. In our field of education, these can often be students, families, or entire communities of color.

When we focus only on the surface and only hear the words and not what’s behind them, it can be easy to dismiss another’s perspective. In meetings and in conversations, we reply with “I already thought of that,” or “We’ve talked about that before,” or “Yes, but…”

Reactions like those seem innocuous and may feel true. But when we respond to each other right away with a knee-jerk-“I’m-already-on-that” reply, we’re effectively shutting others down and devaluing what they’re saying.

We’re saying “I’m right, and here’s why.” And it feels lousy to be on the other side of that.

Truly listening means putting all responses aside, regardless of who’s speaking. It means having an open mind and being vulnerable. 

As individuals, and especially for our work in education, we each have the responsibility to suss out what’s behind others’ comments and questions. We have a responsibility to share power and influence with those around us.

After all, being listened to and ultimately being understood is powerful – for ourselves, for our work, and for the students and communities we serve.

At an EP staff retreat last year, Dr. Howard Fuller shared with us the thought that engagement isn’t the same as empowerment. Asking a community what color a new bridge should be isn’t the same as listening to whether they want a new bridge in their community at all. Those who decided to build a bridge in the first place were the ones with power.

I think about Dr. Fuller’s sentiment often.

In my opinion, too often in education, where we serve others and where we often enter new communities to help improve schools there, we get engagement right and don’t realize that haven’t truly empowered the students, families, and communities we serve.

We invite others to the table to give them a chance to say the thing. But being at the table doesn’t give an individual power unless what they’re saying is understood, is valued, and becomes an integral part of the work.

We have an opportunity in our work across the education sector to move from engagement to empowerment. And more than just an opportunity: it’s our responsibility.

After all, “saying the thing” isn’t easy. Speaking hard truths about access, opportunity, and privilege in a society that isn’t always receptive demands courage. So we must also be brave and listen.

Yes, we’re human. Our natural response will always be to react, and to defend ourselves, our teams, and our viewpoints.

But when we can each learn to get beyond reacting and step into listening, that’s where we find the space—and the hope—for the real transformation we’re seeking in the first place.


Are you listening? Or not being heard? Tell us how you think listening can help in education, how not listening hurts us, or what we’ve missed. Comment below, tweet at us using #ImListening, or email us at We’ll compile your responses into a follow-up blog post.


Jennifer Chin is the Senior Manager, Marketing for Education Pioneers, where she brands and promotes programs that can help people find careers in education—and change the world for kids. She joined EP because she believes having access to a high-quality education is every child's fundamental right—and that it takes talented, ambitious leaders to make educational equity a reality.



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