One of the most important skills in today’s society is the ability to be an effective communicator. Engaging in productive dialogue is at the core of our democracy and includes listening and speaking.

We test our reading and math skills on a regular basis, but far less frequently do we assess how well we are listening to one another.

In education we often wonder: How do we create schools where each student’s voice is heard? How do we teach our students to put their needs aside long enough to listen and understand another’s point of view?

There’s no better way to teach a skill than to begin with modeling it. In RSU5, we have had many opportunities recently to practice listening.

The referendum vote for the new track and field passed on Jan. 10. The majority of people in the RSU are excited for this new facility, but some, including many of the neighborhood families that will be adjusting to the additional noise, light, and people in their neighborhood, are fearful that their concerns will not be heard.

Additionally, we are beginning to grapple with the budget for next year and as always, there are competing needs and interests from many departments and stakeholders. All worry whether their concerns and needs about their individual child or school will be considered.

And if you have lived even a brief while on this earth, “you never listen” is a saying that most of us have experienced from a frustrated daughter, son, spouse, or loved one at least once in our life.

Fortunately, we can become stronger in our listening aptitude because it is a teachable skill for all of us. Throughout classrooms in RSU 5, we implement the “Responsive Classroom Model” in the younger grades, since we believe that academic success is inextricably tied to building social-emotional skills such as being an empathetic listener.

As life-long learners, we can all strive to listen more effectively. Stephen Covey tells us that “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

In today’s society, we all need to work to suspend our judgment until we have fully attended to the message. In empathetic listening, the heart is as critical to good listening as the ears in order to receive the message being given.

As we approach Valentine’s Day, what better gift is there to give our loved ones than to open our hearts and give the gift of truly listening and understanding the message being given. The world would be a better place if we listened to one another more.

Becky Foley is superintendent of schools in Regional School Unit 5 (Freeport-Durham-Pownal). She can be reached at [email protected].