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Column: Active Listening Helps Us Continue to Learn about Saint Paul Public Schools

Superintendent Joe Gothard

Dear SPPS Colleagues,

As we turn the page toward a new semester, I am reminded how quickly the days pass by. This week has been a wonderful reminder about the skill of active listening. While my colleagues and friends in the SPPS community are rarely shy, I enjoy learning and growing from perspectives that are shared with me.

Part of the process of being an active listener is providing the time and space to create an environment of trust and support. One thing I am working on is leaving my cell phone behind or tucked away. I have also removed nearly all notifications from my device. In the time I’ve set my phone aside, I feel more present in meetings and conversations.

This past week gave me a great chance to put active listening to the test.

I was able to listen to  former Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. speak about civil rights and racial justice at the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday Breakfast. 

There was a well attended public comment session prior to this week’s board meeting. This was an opportunity to listen to various stakeholders’ perceptions and experiences.

SPPS held our first budget engagement session that was attended by nearly 100 families  and community members. This was an opportunity to listen to various perspectives about what priorities they would like to see reflected in our 2020-21 budget.

I spent three hours with researcher/author Robin DiAngelo who spoke to a room full of professionals from throughout the Twin Cities. At various points of her presentation, the audience was asked to turn and talk with each other about different topics. Participating in the prompts with strangers requires a heightened level of active listening, which I found  helpful to building new learning experiences and listening to the perspectives of others. 

I also created the space and time to actively listen to one of our new board members. One-on-one meetings with new members of our Board of Education, helps build my relationship with board members as individuals, which is instrumental to the success of our work together. 

During a listen and learn session with a group of principals last week, I was presented feedback that is invaluable in my role as superintendent. Being an active listener often means I may not always like what I hear, however, creating an environment that welcomes critical feedback is important to me and our work as a district.

Our annual school choice fair was held this weekend. Rarely do I get the opportunity to interact with hundreds of our students, staff and families all in one setting. I listened to perspectives about SPPS from stakeholders with experiences different than my own. 

Focusing on my ability to listen to  a speaker’s words, while paying attention to their tone and body language allows me to consider follow-up questions to ask. Framing questions acknowledges that the speaker is heard and allows the conversation to go deeper. I am grateful that I am able to continue learning about Saint Paul Public Schools from the many wonderful people I get to listen to every day.

In partnership,

Joe Gothard, Superintendent