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The Art of Being Present with Your Students

My mother passed away almost a decade ago. I still miss her to this day. After her memorial service, I got a call from a friend who tried to express his condolences for my loss. He had lost his mom a couple of years earlier and knew how I felt. When he shared this, I felt safe enough to share the details of how much I was grieving. It was at this point that I heard the clicking sound of my friend’s keyboard. He was obviously still on the line, but was multi-tasking. He clearly wanted to empathize with my situation, but he also felt the need to get some work done on his computer at the same time.

You can imagine, I felt silly about sharing the details of my grief. I don’t blame my friend for being busy, but somehow, the subject of our conversation didn’t match the superficial manner in which he handled it. It seemed hollow.

My guess is, every one of us is guilty of social distraction. We could accurately be called the “distracted generation.” It seems we have too much going on for any of us to give our complete attention to one person. Philosopher Martin Buber called these “I-It” Interactions, which happens when one person has little attunement to another’s reality and feels no real empathy in that moment. Buber coined the term “I-It” for the range of relations running from merely detached to utterly exploitative. The person is merely doing their duty to appear caring, but in reality, they’re fulfilling a checklist. After all, they’re busy. I get it. In many cases (if we’re honest), we are utilitarian and often interact only as deeply as necessary to obtain what we want.

Daniel Goleman writes, “When other tasks or preoccupations split our attention, the dwindling reserve left for the person we are talking with leaves us operating on automatic, paying just enough attention to keep the conversation on track.”

Hollow Conversations

How often have we done this with students, who disturb us wanting to talk about silly items like their failure to crash a course, their roommate’s grooming habits, or their boyfriend who never texts anymore. These seem trivial. But Goleman goes on to say, “Multiple preoccupations take a toll on any conversation that goes beyond the routine, particularly when it enters emotionally troubling zones.” We mean no harm. There are simply too many items to tend to — few issues get our undivided attention. Herbert Simon wisely said, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

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So we continue talking with students, but our conversations are hollow. They are shallow. They are mellow. Little pathos. We fail to recognize the desperate need our students have for something we can give them. They are starving for it.

The Currency We Must Pay

While this is not completely about technology, I have come to observe that we adults (teachers, staff, parents, coaches, etc.) can be just as distracted by our smart phones as our students. These portable devices enable us to constantly be distracted. They test and reduce our ability to be fully present.

May I remind you of something you already know? The currency of today’s student is social, and it’s all about attention. Think about what they value online:

  • Likes
  • Shares
  • Views
  • Re-tweets
  • Re-posts

All of these measurements are about someone paying attention to what they said. Attention is so rare today, they are crying out for it (sometimes, even begging for it). When among friends, it’s common to see them peering down at their phones instead of talking. Physically, they’re close, but emotionally, they’re detached. They’re somewhere else, paying only a little attention to what’s in front of them. While this may not seem weird to them, they are aware that when someone gives them their full, undivided attention, it’s a valuable commodity.

The good news is, paying full attention is so unusual, many students don’t expect it. Interacting with a person who’s multitasking is the norm. Few of them anticipate focused attention from someone else. When they get it, however, it is like water in the dessert.

Fundamentals We Can Practice with Students

My suggestion is — choose at least one student this week and practice the following:

  1. When a conversation begins, stop everything else you are doing.
  2. Look them in the eye and smile as they communicate their thoughts.
  3. If the topic goes deep and you have the time, silence your phone.
  4. Offer non-verbal cues that you understand and empathize with them.
  5. Ask a question that signals you caught the sub-text of their words.
  6. Battle to evade prejudice or preoccupation with what you wish to say.
  7. Listen and then validate their emotions. Be genuinely transparent.
  8. When its time for you to speak—affirm them as valued people.

You and I may not claim to be rich, but we have enough currency to pay a student exactly what they need. We can pay attention.


The 5th Anniversary Edition of Generation iY is here!

Discover the Secrets to Connecting With Teens and Young Adults

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See the New iY Here

This new edition includes bonus chapters. new research, and recent stories that help adults:

  • Adopt education strategies that engage an “i” generation
  • Employ their strengths and styles on the job
  • Correct crippling parenting styles
  • Repair damage from (unintentional) lies we’ve told students
  • Guide young adults toward real success instead of superficial “self-esteem”
  • Understand the generation following Millennials: Generation Z

6 Comments

  1. Marisol on September 10, 2015 at 4:19 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Every young person wants to matter.

  2. Uduak on September 11, 2015 at 11:43 am

    Last year, I was in a one- one meeting with a busy executive. During our conversation, her cell phone rang and she surprised me by ignoring it and continuing with our conversation. I expected her to stop at any moment, excuse herself and listen to the other obviously important person on the phone that needed her time. The fact that she ignored the phone call and concentrated on what I was sayiing validated me in a very deep manner. I resolved to be like that in my conversations with others. Thanks for reminding us of the need to validate our students in this manner.

  3. R Squared on September 12, 2015 at 7:13 am

    This is what I was taught as “active listening.” As a parish pastor I seek to employ it often but talking on the phone is very challenging as you note, there are temptations to split attention between the phone and the PC. I also find that people will sometimes tell me something in a setting that causes me to think that it’s a comment in passing when later I discover they were looking for and expecting full connection. Truly, active listening takes practice!

  4. Della on September 12, 2015 at 11:17 pm

    “The good news is, paying full attention is so unusual, many students don’t expect it. Interacting with a person who’s multitasking is the norm. Few of them anticipate focused attention from someone else. When they get it, however, it is like water in the [desert].” Great post. And these words are so good. I’ll hang on to them the next time I feel like grabbing someone’s cell phone and stomping on it.

  5. Matthew on September 14, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Thanks, these are crucial truths we must use more effectively NOW!

  6. Bryan H. on October 16, 2015 at 10:47 pm

    The fact that you linked exactly what students are wanting in social media to what we as educators can do for them in the classroom and in life is so important. Their emotional intelligence is just as important as the education they are receiving, and by treating them with respect and paying attention we are making sure they know that someone is on their side.

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The Art of Being Present with Your Students