I’ve chosen to become a teacher. It’s going to be difficult. My days will be long and hard. I’ve already cried in my car after teaching a lesson, and I’ve been told by my mentors that it was only the first of many sob-sessions my car will see. Even so, I feel a desire to be in the classroom, working with students and helping them understand themselves and the world a little bit more.
That last part worries me. How do we help students understand themselves or the world—when both are under so much stress and tension? The United States’ recent election was ridiculously polarizing, and since I sit at a crossroads between two different families, one white and one Asian (though both American), I could see how much of a divide has come between the people I love.
After witnessing, and sometimes partaking, in a variety of conversations centered around tough topics, there’s one underlying issue that I see everyone shares: they feel that no one’s listening. (This is also a familiar complaint I hear with students). And, well, it’s something I understand, because I don’t always want to listen. I’m tired of repeating, rephrasing, reiterating my argument when it falls on deaf ears… because I feel no one listens to me, either.
And so, we have a problem. An impasse. Whether we’re talking about race, women’s rights, religion, we never come to a satisfactory conclusion, because we never really want to. In general, we go into these heated conversations with a desire to be heard, or to change the minds of the people we’re talking to. Rarely does this work. In fact, it seems like it only manages to stretch the divide. Of course, it’d be weak for me to say, “but if we only listened to each other…” The problem is more complicated, more nuanced than that. But it’s still a part of the problem. And if I want to have productive conversations with the adults in my life, or if I want to be able to have those conversations with the students I will one day teach, then I need to understand the how. How can we talk to be heard, and how can we talk to listen?
I do believe that if we enter debates or conversations with the intention to listen to another person, then our conversation would be more constructive. And while this is true, it’s also frustrating. Sometimes, I feel it’s up to me (and the people who agree with me) to be “the bigger person.” It’s up to us to swallow our pride, reach out, try to understand the others’ point of view. And on one hand, it makes sense. On the other, having to be the bigger person feels like an excuse our detractors use when they don’t want to deal with the consequences to their actions.
But we have to keep trying. Again and again, we have to open lines of dialogue, swallow the fire that wants to spark off our tongues, and listen. As much as we want to educate, to prove someone wrong, there’s hard scientific evidence to suggest that this doesn’t quite work. When we enter a discourse, it might have to be with the knowledge that we might not get anything out of it other than a bad taste in our mouths. But if we stick it out, if we allow these conversations to stretch over days, weeks, months… then it’s very likely our patience will pay off. We can’t make other people change their minds. But we can be great role models, nudge them in the right direction, and through our conversations, help them understand the other side of the argument.
Changing a person’s mind begins with letting them know we hear them. Even if we don’t agree, even if we think they’re incredibly wrong, it’s still true that they have their reasons. Until we understand what shapes them to be who they are, we’ll never understand the true essence of their argument. Despite this, there will come a day where we know, without a doubt, that whoever we are talking to will not be changed. We can show as much respect as we can muster to a person who doesn’t deserve it, and they will only respond by taking advantage of our good will. And if that’s ever the case…then maybe the fire will do.