It's good to talk, but it's even better to listen

29th July 2011 at 01:00

"I'm just pulling out of the station ..."

School's out, so when I sit on the train now, I have no frantic marking to distract me from mobile phone conversations. They are monologues, really, because one side is just a tinny bleat. This is partly what makes them so annoying:

"Look, I don't know what else to do. It's revolting."

Once you start to listen, though, they are riveting. I don't know why anyone bothers to hack into mobile phones. These people are happily spraying their most intimate decisions all over the 10.38am to Paddington.

"Yeah, every night, it's great, but he's obsessed with greyhounds. So I don't know."

Some sit there braying advice. Anguished squeaking occasionally breaks in but these callers have rung to lecture, not listen. For the person at the other end it must be like getting therapy from a foghorn.

"Look, just leave! You always say that but it's not your period now, is it?"

Many of these foghorns will spend the evening on Facebook, telling an awestruck universe that they don't like spinach. They share piffle like that in privacy, yet spend their commute revealing major life decisions.

Maybe it feels a bit like this to be a pupil sometimes. Bossy voices try to shape your life, in a hurry, demanding that you listen to them. This reminds me of what I once heard a boy say about a new teacher who was trying to establish authority with a class.

"It was better this week," said the boy. "He listened to us."

What teachers want of pupils is exactly what pupils want of teachers: to be heard. Listening to these mobile phone foghorns, I wonder if I sound like this to my classes when I'm stressed. The more stressed I am, the bossier I get - and the less I listen.

The right-wing press often calls for a more "chalk-and-talk" approach in schools, but it is one of the greatest changes in education that children are listened to more than they were 60 years ago.

Listening to a child is not trendy or weak. It is often the only way to find out how they see their situation. You can then start to unravel confusion about academic work and resolve conflict in the classroom.

Occasionally, you do get a mobile phone listener. A voice so quiet that you can tell they hate using mobiles on trains, but this call is important. "Mm. No, nobody thinks you should get a new cat. Mm. It's too soon."

The voice of a person who is listening to you has a lovely sound. So if you want to be heard, listen. This cat whisperer would make a good teacher.

Maybe teachers should record themselves. No fuss, no forms. Just play it back with a glass of wine, cringe and learn. I might try that next term. For now, though, I'll kick back and hone my listening skills on this lot.

Funny, but that is the one thing that the foghorns do not like. They love their own voices, but they hate it if you listen to them. These casual thieves of peace need to know: yes, we heard that. Every stupid word.

Catherine Paver is a writer and part-time English teacher.

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