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Love of Learning

Learning to Listen: How John Murphy Became a Better Teacher

By MINA WONG - December 16 2019

A short story by Mina Wong

John Murphy has always been proud of his loud voice and intricate ideas with elaborate arguments, but more importantly, he enjoys giving people advice solely based on his own opinions.

However, being a complex thinker has not meant successful relationships for John. In fact, many people have avoided him. Even when John’s wife, Shirley raised this subject with him, he would dismiss those who kept their distance as “silly people with silly ideas”.

Privately, Shirley knew John was a poor communicator even with her and their teenage daughter, Emily.

Nevertheless, when John became Dr. Murphy in mathematics last year, he was awarded several handsome research grants. He was also asked to teach classes at the university that gave him his doctorate.

An art instructor herself, Shirley believed teaching to be more about listening than talking. She asked, “So, John, can you get along with students not much older than Emily?”

John was gruff and decisive: “Everything will be fine if they will just listen to me.”

Discreetly, Shirley and Emily said a prayer for him before his very first class packed with late teens in first year Math. Their understanding was that John was teaching four classes of Math 100 each week.

Not to Shirley’s surprise, John’s first week of classes did not go well. 

During the very first meeting with every group of Math 100 students, John delivered an hour-long lecture with slides in dim light. When students raised their hands with questions or comments, John would stop them: “Shh – I am still talking.”

After turning the lights back on and announced he was ready for questions, John was befuddled that many students had left. When some approached him, “Professor Murphy, I wonder if …”, John would cut them off with a bewildering lecture that left them stunned and speechless. 

To his colleagues, Dr. Murphy’s first week was simply a disaster. 

Department Chair, Janeth Sharma received almost a hundred complaints from MATH 100 students about John: “Terrible listener, talks too much”, “Zero interest in students”, “He shuts us up when we ask questions”, “The slides are pages of the textbook”, “Dr. Murphy rambles on even when we try to talk with him”, and “Murphy — king of monologues” were among students’ distressed messages to Janeth.

She met with John first thing Monday morning in the second week: “John, we can support you to be a better teacher, but you need to start listening to students.”

Although Janeth was John’s supervisor, he still tried to cut her off with the theory that his students did not want to attend classes. But her ultimatum was loud and clear: “John, learn to listen and communicate or ship out.”

She knew many mathematicians who were good teachers even if they did not have John’s accolades.

Still, to be fair-minded, Janeth found out more about John: he liked to hear his own booming voice; he had little patience for conversations; he always assumed he had perfect answers when they could be peculiar ideas or eccentric arguments; he also liked to advise others even when he was not asked to do so.

That evening, John lamented to Shirley and Emily: “Janeth says I’ll lose my job unless I start listening to people. How do I do that?”

Without missing a beat, Emily took her stand: “How do you do that? Dad, it’s not rocket science! Just stop talking and give other people a chance to finish first! Just try that.”

“Bravo”, thought Shirley of their courageous girl, but said calmly: “John, Emily has a point.”

Since then, John has genuinely tried to improve his listening skills. He has also attended communication workshops, and more notably, he has managed to keep his teaching job.

A year later, John seems more patient with others, and tries to let them talk before giving his opinion. To help him with the bad habit of cutting someone off, Shirley will prompt, “John, did so-and-so just say such-and-such?”

Shirley’s cue is often enough for John to pause, listen more, and talk less. Instead of presuming his advice is gold, he will try to restate what someone has said. From interpersonal skills workshops, he has also learned to ask, “Is that what you mean?”

John’s improvement has not escaped Janeth’s scrutiny. She is happy that mentoring him early in his teaching career is paying off, and that with steady progress, he can be a successful Math professor in her corner. She is definitely pleased that John has learned to have conversations instead of just monologues. 

At home, John also communicates better with Shirley and Emily. Sometimes, they still prompt him to hear information fully before answering, but both agree that through learning to listen, Professor Murphy is now a more pleasant family member to live with.

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