Paying Attention

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What does it take to get and hold someone’s attention. Years in the classroom have given Marilyn Englander a clue or two.

Last year, I enrolled in a challenging college class. I worked hard, had perfect attendance, asked lots of questions. The teacher seemed interested in me. Imagine my dismay, six months in, when she asked my name. My confidence faltered. I’d been invisible to her.

As a teacher myself, I know the “open sesame” for students is remembering their names, making them feel known, and fast ---- at least by week two.

Many teachers find themselves repeating “pay attention”, like a mantra. But more effective than prodding students to listen is a teacher connecting to students personally.

In my middle school classroom, when I checked in about Kate’s fights with her mother or asked how Chad’s baseball game had gone, I’d see the kids settle in better to work.


My current group of adult English learners made greater progress the more I acknowledged them as individuals. I chat with Maria about her cat, to her delight. I asked where each student lives, and can commiserate when a delayed bus makes them late for class. Sample sentences on the board are about Helena’s tasty empanadas, and after class I talk to Pablo about the pressure he feels at work to learn English faster. Adults as well as kids who feel belonging and significance are happier in their work. Being seen and appreciated is a springboard for learning.

This discovery blossomed throughout my life, once I put my mind to it. At the swimming pool, I often share a lap lane with another woman. The tension evaporated after I asked her name, and used it. Recently, a friend told me his tactic to feel happier on a long plane trip. He greets every flight attendant by name as he boards, and asks friendly questions about them as they hand out drinks. Smooth sailing for the next six hours, everyone feeling, well, sort of loved.

It doesn’t take much; eye contact, a few seconds of sincere curiosity, reaching out, person to person. It warms up the world just a little bit, in the best way.

With a Perspective, I’m Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a North Bay educator.