The Art of Being Present with Your Students


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

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.”

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.

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