Listening in a Chaotic World

Hey there everybody…

As some of you may know, I’m currently on a sabbatical from my job as a middle school Spanish teacher. It’s a pretty dream situation: I wanted to tag along and travel with Justin when he was invited to any number of amazing international conferences to speak, so I pitched an idea to my school district:

  1. I will travel to a variety of countries, visiting primary and secondary schools in each destination in order to learn about a variety of education systems, and share what I learn with colleagues and community members as I go through a blog, and various social media channels (twitter, facebook, and instagram)
  2. While in those countries, conducting school visits, I identify teachers who are interested in forming meaningful global relationships with our teachers so that all of our students can have contextualized, developmentally appropriate opportunities to develop global competence, cultural sensitivity, and friends around the world, often through leveraging our 1:1 digital laptop program.

To my intense surprise and pleasure my school district accepted my sabbatical proposal, and now I’m living my dream, traveling from country to country, with pit stops at home to recover and repack, and then continuing on to new destinations. While this sounds magical and without difficulty, I assure you it has had its share of hiccups, including but not limited to:

  • extreme anxiety regarding my ability to cultivate contacts in schools abroad, successfully schedule school visits, navigate unfamiliar cities and public transportation, and language barriers that prevent me from competently communicating my sabbatical work and goals. (note: all of this has been fine. that in no way stops me from (still) worrying about all of it, incessantly.)
  • extreme anxiety regarding my fear that others are judging me for taking a sabbatical “just 10 years into teaching” (which I totally get, yet totally don’t…teaching is hard. Always. Arguably, teaching is actually harder in your FIRST 10 years than your later years, since there is such a steep learning curve for new teachers. Still though…I DO get it, but I fear the judgement of others nonetheless, because what others think of me, regardless of whether it really should, matters very much to me. Possibly this need to justify on some level my reasons for taking a break at this point in my career is why I’ve written an article entitled “Why Every Teacher Should Take a Sabbatical” and published it personally and in other publications for teachers online.)
  • organizational and motivational challenges regarding scheduling travel to 10+ countries in one school year, including flights, places to stay, schools to visit, things to do and see in each place (because you can’t just stay in when you’re in Oslo, Norway in high summer! You have to go out! Every night! Until you drop of exhaustion! Or else, FOMO!)
  • struggling through what I refer to as the “hangover effect” of leaving one job for another. Although I haven’t exactly “left” teaching, I’m not in (my own) classroom for the first time in a decade, and this is a change and strange. I’ve learned this year that any change, even a positive one, is a stress on the system. So, particularly during the “hangover period” of growing accustomed to being self-directed and organizing my own time (rather than letting the waterfall of chaos that is teaching wash me along), there was a lot of stress.
  • Related to that stress…the difficulty of learning to listen.

And, after a characteristically verbose introduction, that’s the topic today: Learning to Listen in a Chaotic World.

Guys. Our world is a mess. Whether you think of our current political situation stateside or zoom out to encompass issues on a global scale like climate change…it’s tough not to notice how chaotic life is becoming on our planet. And something about this year and seeing life in a variety of countries around the global has exacerbated my awareness of the chaos. Traffic alone in a variety of cities I’ve visited, from Osaka, Japan to San José, Costa Rica to Lima, Peru was so unrealistically terrible that I found myself realizing that we really probably are the last generation to live the way we do. The kids growing up today are destined for a totally different reality than what we have today. Our current rate of contamination is simply unsustainable. It’s easy, in one’s own city, to learn times of day and routes to avoid the crush of rush hour traffic, and thereby fool oneself into thinking “it’s not that bad”. But, let me assure you: it’s bad. It’s very very bad. And that’s only one tiny issue: traffic. The sheer number of issues in our world and the ensuing chaos that results is enough to make me feel physically ill at times…often triggering a stress migraine or at the very least an elevated heart rate or sweaty palms (and pits! let’s be real! ha!)

Anywho…the world is chaotic. I think we can agree. And something about the human condition, I think, makes us always turn inward and feel that OUR specific worlds are the MOST chaotic. And maybe that’s true in a way; after all, we are all so self-involved (yup, even the selfless ones among us, to some extent), that we are always wired to be somewhat more concerned for ourselves than we are for others. So if you take the chaos of the world at large and then add on your own personal stressors of life in your particular country, state, city, and the spheres in which you move (work, home, “play”) and the different people you interact with in each, the relationships you are building and/or maintaining in each context, and everything that goes along with that…it IS truly chaotic. (Side note: when I was little I looooved to read, so I learned a lot of words without hearing them aloud. For example, I earned the word “chaos” this way and for years pronounces it ‘cha-os!” in my head. Still do to this day. So “chaotic” is “cha-oh-tic” 🙂

How do we cope?

We learn to listen.

I know, I know that’s infuriatingly simple shit. But the tighter I find myself wound, the more I find that the simplest things are the best ways to cope and combat the chaos.

Today I listened to a rather hippy-dippy yet beautiful, guided meditation podcast by Tara Brach, entitled “Listening to the Song – Part I” (Part II – come at me! Ready!) While the lessons in this 50-minute gem were too numerous to count, here were a few of my key takeaways:

  • Being listened to is one of our greatest needs as human beings.
  • When we listen, really listen, to others, we give them the gift of allowing them to express their sense of self.
  • We are, on some level, afraid of our own self not being recognized or remembered. This is why, when we have conversations, we often fail to really listen, and instead focus on planning our responses.
  • To truly listen, let go of responding / planning a response. Let words belet ideas hang, give the gift of presence/interest/engagement to others when in a conversation. This will be awkward…when the other person pauses or waits for your response, you may not have one if you are truly listening and not planning. That’s ok. Let it be.
  • Engage with the mortality of other mortals by listening
  • My own thought – not really in the podcast – practice first listening to yourself. If you are anything like me, you sometimes have a helluva time figuring out what your heart really wants or needs in a given moment.For me this can be for anything from not being sure if I want to read a book or watch a show on Netflix all the way up to whether I’m not sure I want to remain a classroom teacher or embark on a new adventure or career change. It’s a little ridiculous how difficult it can be to truly tune in to yourself and just listen.
  • Have an anchor to bring you back to the present – simple, effective ideas from the podcast included: returning to your breath, becoming aware of a body part like your hands and relaxing them, or having a few words you repeat to yourself like a mantra to remind you to be here now.
  • Once you have practiced listening to yourself, practice listening attentively to someone you care about very much, e.g. a spouse, a child, another family member, a friend, a student, a colleague. Focus exclusively on him or her anytime you are interacting. Some ideas for how to really do that include:
    • maintaining eye contact,
    • being aware of your body language and the message it is sending about your level of focus and engagement in the conversation (i.e. lean in to increase proximity, cross legs towards, not away from, the individual, etc),
    • when discussing matters that are somewhat emotional, rather than thinking of your own experiences and responses and/or advice you can provide, simply state back to the person what they are saying, maybe in your own words. (e.g. “I hear you saying that you’re really stressed about project X. That must be really stressful, huh?”) <- This seems so basic and unnecessary but try it, and I promise you’ll be surprised at home much it helps people open up to you. Got this strategy from Gretchen Rubin, happiness guru, who got it from the book “How to talk so kids will listen and listen so kids will talk”, by authors Adele Faber  and Elaine Mazlish 

I encourage you to stick in your headphones on a hectic weekday morning for yourself and get a little zen to start your day – great during a commute too: Tara Brach, really any of her meditations, but the ideas in this post came from the episode:  “Listening to the Song – Part I” from Feb. 22, 2017.

How about you? How do you tune out the chaos in the world around you when needed and find ways to listen? I really struggle with this, and in fact often become combative and argumentative in situations that don’t even call for it, so I am very eager to learn a wide variety of strategies to encourage me to listen thoughtfully.


About beckysearls

Married (DINK); High School Spanish Teacher; Lover of new technology (especially apple products!), Learner (of the life-long variety), Voracious Reader, Aspiring Writer, Tweeter, and now (or rather, a returning) Blogger!
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