The Unhappy Cost of Personal Space


When I was a child, it took me between two and three hours to fall asleep each night. This didn’t deeply trouble me. It was not pleasant, but I thought that it was normal. This was the obligation of all humans, to have minds that were still churning with thoughts when we first lay down and only calmed with time. It wasn’t until middle school when I read in some magazine that the average human falls asleep in seven minutes, that I realized something was wrong.

Throughout my life I’ve had a complicated relationship with sleep. During seasons of intense sports playing, there was little left at the end of the day. During fights with friends, I was too nervous to sleep a wink. Sometimes I would work until my eyelids would stay open no more. If I had an early flight to catch or an interview the next day, good luck. And then there is sometimes choice in the matter: at different times of my life I have thought of sleep as not that important: the adrenaline rush of accomplishment or romance could make me oblivious to the usual effects of sleep deprivation.

My inconsistent sleeping is no surprise; I’m not a researcher, but I would bet that child insomniacs rarely make sound-sleeping adults. But I have grown up in some ways: over the years I’ve developed a clear list of causes and consequences that affect my sleep– from physical activity to prayer and meditation, from socializing to phone proximity, from going through a bedtime routine to monitoring the content of what I read and watch right before I am supposed to sleep. Nowadays I prioritize and defend my sleep with far more vigor and respect than most people I know.

But perhaps the thing that has most surprised me is how emotional connection affects my sleep. When I was young, I slept in a first floor room at the far end of a big house. We lived in a very very safe neighborhood, and I was never in harm’s way, but at night, all things grow out of proportion, and my fears were wild and unhelpful. I felt that anyone could get to me through the five large windows in my room, and if someone did break in, no one would be able to help. When I got older, I moved even further away from the center of our house into the last room in the hallway, the old master bedroom of the house. I had been excited to have freedom and independence. It was a big room, with space to have friends over to hang out, to set up my art table, and to decorate the walls and play dress up in front of the mirror. But did it make me happy to have all that to myself?

As an adult, I gave up those rooms. Now, when I come back to visit, I stay in my father’s den, a small cave filled with old books and papers that’s just off the kitchen and next to the garage. It’s tiny, messy, and loud. Throughout the day people tramp in to borrow pens, grab stamps, or use the computer. At night you can hear everyone who grabs a late night snack in the kitchen, tries to do laundry, or opens the garage. But I have never slept so well in my parent’s home. Sometimes I wish that as a kid, I had realized that this proximity to my family’s love would have been far more important to me than the space and privacy I thought I wanted.

I have experienced this at other moments in my life. In a relationship, the nights I have felt most sure of the love of the man sleeping next to me are always the nights I have slept the soundest. When I have visited my friends in other parts of the world where space is not as cheap to come by as in an American suburb (in Mumbai for example), homes are much smaller places of great joy and connection– and often shared sleeping spaces. Sure, people get on each other’s nerves and get into each other’s business, and maybe it’s not as easy to keep a secret, but I’m not sure those are bad things. Patience, integrity, accountability… perhaps there are hidden benefits to sharing life with people.**

And some of the most amazing communities (often religious ones) I have ever been a part of and visited have made hospitality, accountability, and inclusion the values that guide their members’ actions. Not respecting privacy or privileging personal space.

So perhaps this is what Americans are slow to realize: we are always on a quest for more space, more privacy, and more independence. But maybe we are going after the wrong thing. Maybe those things don’t really make us happy. Maybe love matters more.

Maybe we are happiest and most at peace when we know we are not alone.



**Footnote: Are there objections? Clearly. I have a student who has not been able to sleep soundly in several months because the number of people crammed into her apartment is far beyond its capacity. And insomnia or its absence hardly qualifies as a scientific litmus test of human happiness.


How to Eviscerate a Public School: Like Boiling a Frog in Water


Dedicated to Detroit, to all the schools that are losing their very sense of self this year in Boston, and to all the schools all over America who have never had a chance to be great because they’ve never had the money.


It is an oft-recited fun fact that if you place a frog in room-temperature water and then slowly heat up and cook him, the frog will not realize he is being boiled to death until it is far too late to jump out. I think often of this image when I see America’s public schools and their funding crisis. What we have normalized and become okay with will keep adjusting until it is far too late to save ourselves.

Given that many of my readers may not be educators, as a brief introduction, I would like to explain what makes a strong school. Despite a countrywide measurement system based on test scores and dropout rates, these are the 15 things that actually make a school great:

  1. A sufficient number of excellent teachers who have sustainable workloads
  2. A wide choice of great courses (traditional, project-based, creative/elective, A.P., etc.)
  3. Small class sizes
  4. Extra-curricular options and a good after-school program (sports, clubs, support groups, tutoring, etc.)
  5. A building that is well-maintained and clean (adequate custodial staff and budget)
  6. Materials (whether it’s supplies for classes, a sound system for performances, a working copy machine or intercom, or new books)
  7. Working technology for students to use (internet that works, computers, projectors, etc.)
  8. Enough administrators and staffers to make sure that all students are safe, that learning is kept sacred, and that misbehavior is effectively handled with appropriate and real consequences
  9. A safe and stable transportation option for students
  10. Non-academic resources and opportunities for students: job counseling, field trips, service trips, student leadership, mentorship, etc.
  11. Sufficient support for students with certain needs: mental health counseling, special educators, a resource room or study class, a reading intervention course, a sub-separate strand if necessary, a social worker, etc.
  12. An updated library and engaged librarian (media specialists)
  13. Effective guidance counselors, college counselors for all students to leave school with a plan for the future
  14. Excellent health education (including healthy and edible school food, a sex-ed program, and a way for students to participate in enjoyable physical activities)
  15. Clear communication with family, communities, and students (newsletter, email list, calls home, parent nights, student handbook, etc.)


If we were to measure based on comparing these 15 things with the student population each school is given, we may in fact end up with far better models for evaluating teachers, administrators, schools, districts, and states. We also might begin to acknowledge the effects (a) school funding and (b) societal problems can have on school effectiveness, instead of pretending such overwhelming forces are irrelevant.

If I were a wealthy philanthropist (sadly, I am not), this is what I would do: I would create a third party school report-card system that actually evaluated school effectiveness as above and held everyone accountable for that effectiveness: the teachers who teach, the administrators who lead, the politicians who assign budgets, the district leaders who allocate money, the states who make policies. Instead of calling children failures and creating a numbers game that schools have to play, quantify the right things and create an education system in this country we can actually be proud of.

You may not need to read further, but if you’d like to, below is a demonstration of the importance of school funding. While some of what is written here is my personal experience, some of it is an amalgamation of the experiences of my friends, students, and fellow teachers across the country.


How to eviscerate a public school:

First, the changes will be slight. The cuts will be small. You may not notice. You’ll only have a nurse on campus four days a week, instead of five. You’ll tell the sports teams that they have to wait one more year to buy new uniforms. You’ll tell that community group that came to work with your school last year that this year we just can’t make it happen. You’ll let one of the custodians go, but there is still a team of four left.

You notice that your enrollment is changing. There are slightly fewer requests for your school from the last year. There are a lot of new charter schools opening that can count on outside funding, run through teachers as fast as TFA, and suspend and expel kids at will. The parents who have books at home and stable lives for their kids are trying to get into those schools. They don’t want to deal with the other kids… the kids with a lot of special needs, the kids who grew up poor, the kids whose parents are incarcerated, the kids who speak some other language at home and need extra help and extra education. They want safe. They want choice. They want better. They will save themselves first. You cannot blame them. If all of America hates public things, who would sacrifice his own child to make a point that we still need to fund those public things?

Your school feels the new load of the changing population. You look children in the eyes who have traumatic experiences you can barely imagine. You watch some of them crumble into hollow versions of media stereotypes but some of them unfold and rise above every obstacle, carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. You teach them anyhow, both horrified and numbed by your inability to do anything for their outside lives. No parent should have to work three jobs. No kid should be alone this much. No family should have to be split up by oceans too big to swim and plane flights too expensive to buy. No kid should grow up thinking the whole country finds him both terrifying and worthless because of the color of his skin. No kid should grow up thinking that drug addiction and incarceration are normal family traits.

The seats in your school begin to fill with children who seem impossibly behind. You watch them look at words on a page, words that seem to grow wings and fly away, fold in on themselves and disappear, reconstruct themselves into other terms. You watch these children struggle with the shame of disabilities in a  cruel adolescent society. You watch their eyes go vacant in front of you, their ears picking up everything but what you are desperately trying to teach them. You look at their writing and try to decipher words that seem like they should be in sentences but look more like random answers to a crossword game. You have no idea how to grade such things.

You take a deep breath and meet them just the same, as readers and writers. You stay brave. You push them. You watch some of them grow through sheer laborious force of will, and you wonder at their perseverance and you worry because they started to so far behind that some standardized test label at the end of the year is still going to tell them they are failures, despite the fact that they have learned twice as fast under exponentially harder circumstances than other more well-off children.

But some of the children long ago walked down a road you have not been down and cannot save them from. You look at their empty seats. You click “A” on the attendance chart each day. You call phone numbers that never get picked up. You refer them to meetings where their names are repeated. Someone else tries something. The cracks that kids can fall through seem to crack open everywhere.

Your students ask to go on more field trips. You ask about bus costs. The response is a sadly amused smile. You can’t afford to take days off of test prep anyway.


Your school is down another administrator, down two more teachers, down two more custodians. The kids are sad; some of their favorite classes have vanished. Some things are getting old, and it’s beginning to show. The laptops on the laptop carts rarely work. You click refresh ten times, trying to update the computers so kids can type papers. You spend half the class trading out computers hoping some of them will work, trying to make obsolete macbooks still functional. The library hasn’t been updated in a decade– no one even looks at the books any more. The auditorium no longer has a working sound system. The science department is begging for new materials– they only have the stuff to run a few experiments a year, and even those aren’t fun. The nurse is down to three days a week. She has too much paperwork to do. The kids know she can’t really do much for them. They stay in class with their stomach aches, their headaches. They can afford neither the doctor’s note nor the absence.

The building is starting to look dirty, unkempt, old. Food splattered on walls begins to look like dried paint, dust on floors begins to build up like a carpet. You can’t get a bathroom latch. You can’t get a window latch. You can’t get a replacement classroom key. That one room starts to leak whenever it rains. The custodian tells you that’s the best he can do. He looks weary and overworked.

Whatever is in the book room will have to do this year. We cannot buy new books now.

You notice children’s behavior starting to change. Things that weren’t okay before become okay now. Kids talk while you are giving instructions and talk back when you ask them to be quiet. You send them to the dean, the dean sends them back. The other kids wonder if it would be okay if they did this too. The hallways start to become meeting grounds for kids who don’t want to be in class. The classes start to look packed like cans of sardines. There aren’t enough staffers to monitor, to give consequences, to hold accountable. There aren’t enough teachers to keep class sizes small. You hear more yelling. You do more yelling. Teachers start to look tired. Teachers start to feel ineffective. Teachers start to wonder how anyone will be able to learn.

McKinsey tells you you all are not being efficient enough.


The top floor now has two unusable classrooms, buckets on the floor, gaping holes in the ceiling which on bad days pour water down, and on good days, drip sporadically. The basement teacher has started sweeping her own classroom because a custodian hasn’t visited it in a week. He is now on his own doing this building and the next one over.

The school next door is getting closed down.

There is only ⅖ of a nurse. There is no librarian. The supply room is still there, but sometimes you ask for one thing and get something else. The after school buses have been canceled. The after school program is a three bullet-point list of which teachers stay after to give test re-takes on which days. Extra-curriculars, sports teams, and electives have dried up. There is no money. Your school becomes a building in which federal mandates are executed.

No policymaker has mentioned the joy of children in years, just MCAS scores, dropout rates, graduation rates, retention rates. You are horrified and shocked at the acceptance of imprecise data in order to make incredibly impactful decisions. You wonder when children became numbers, when schools– once nurturing communities of human creativity– became distilled into labels and numbers. You look at the budget cut on the screen. You look at the test scores on the screen. You all used to joke about tests in bitter ridicule. Now you wonder if they are school death knolls hiding as standard deviations. The humor is long gone, but the irony remains.

You start to notice your voice is growing tired. Your spirit is growing tired. You get the letter that your job has been reduced. You tell your older students the news. You try to explain politicians to them.

You watch their faces fall. You watch their anger as they express their frustration to you. They are tired of losing teachers they love. They are sick of coming to school each day in a building that is depressingly unkempt. They are sad from over and over again seeing great programs and opportunities fold. They want to do well. They want to get out. They want to work good jobs in the future, and go to good colleges. They want field trips to see the world. They want you to teach them. They want you to show them how to write better, to give them new books to read. They want things to be better than this for their younger siblings and cousins. They want to have as much opportunity as any kid even though they’ve been landed here. They ask what they can do. They are upset. They are weary of being told there isn’t enough money, there is never enough money.

You see their desperation and their despair: they know it doesn’t matter how much they yell. No one at the state house is listening. No one in the mayor’s office is listening.


This is the biggest allocation of public school funding in the history of the city, the mayor will say. No one will mention rising costs and inflation.

The state will stay silent.


11892089_10205064262781998_245366716439010653_n27 comes slowly
like a street sign I creep up to
in the traffic home from work.
27 seems terribly old to the 12 year old inside my heart:
she was brave and bold
if a little too bullheaded for a world
that didn’t end up always wanting to go her way.

27 is admitting that I
wasn’t always honest
with myself,
was impatient,
didn’t know the answers,
was wrong,
still needed help
I didn’t know how to ask for.

27 is learning to grieve and love and lose and wonder
and be grateful all at once,
to be unable to answer simple questions
like “how are you?”
“what do you want?” or “why did you do that?”
or least of all:
“what does it mean?”

We are all from lost generations,
All six million years of us,
sweeping up dustpans full of narratives to cling to,
finding hope in clean dishes and the joy of having someone to hold on to at night;
Even cavemen were afraid of the dark.

And we have all, for generations,
said we’d be in each other’s corners,
but when the bell chimed,
found ourselves with bloodied gloves on,
across the ring,
still hoping to win:
27 is finding out that love can be selfish.

And 27 is learning that love can be a good bye,
That not all loves are permanent adhesive; some are more like
buffeting wind currents,
that there is a love that doesn’t stick but sets free
gives up
moves on
burns out,
and this is not a failure,
even though it hurts,
and makes you cry.

And 27 is finding out that goodness can be small;
That surviving evolution, supervolcanoes, and meteorites
for 6 million years
is a tiny feat of human luck
that allows us to participate in tiny feats of human kindness
in return.

27 is a recipe book that is slowly filling up,
written in an ink of spilled memories you feel too young
to be etching with this much nostalgia.

27 is traveling the world
to find that all along
you just needed to call mom.

27 is a testament
to the friends whose names fill up
your calendars and your memories and your dinner table
and the other halves of your inside jokes,
whose foundation you’ve unknowingly built
your own happiness upon.

27 is an obsolete insistence on paper books
in the age of Kindle.

27 is shoveling your own damn driveway,
doing your own damn laundry
cooking your own damn soup.

27 is thousands of words
tumbling into a mess of a google drive folder,
as you wonder if childhood dreams of music and writing
that you expected to disappear
can end up more than dreams;
and if childhood dreams of love and marriage
that you expected to come true
will only stay dreams.

27 is recognizing that this world is not really your own
that there was no oyster.
It is knowing you might stop hoping and fighting tomorrow
if there were no children,
but there are children
(though they aren’t your own).

I watch 27 approach
Neither fearless nor afraid.
It is inevitable, if both I and time continue;
I have no speculations to make now.

27 is being pretty sure I’m messing something up.
But since no one really knows the words to this song anyway,
it’s turning up the volume,
and singing loud,
and dancing stupidly,
And hoping some other lonesome, frightened fools
will join in the ridiculousness
and start dancing to 27

Or to whatever numbers we want, really.
The music is universal.

What happened to Ms. B’s Job? The facts.

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I am a provisional, third year, Boston Public Schools teacher.

I have been partially laid off for next year.

As the budget stands, I am being offered a .7 position at my current school for next year. That means I would teach 2.5 classes a day (rather than 4). I would be paid 70% of my current salary. I would still receive full benefits and union protection.

Losing 30% of your salary in a city like Boston is very stressful. No more traveling. No more eating out. No more donations to important causes (or snacks for my students on publication days). No more extraneous expenses. No more yoga classes or gym membership. Cutting corners, cutting costs, saving everywhere. As a college student or starving artist, this would be okay. But I am an educated professional with multiple degrees, so it is not really okay. I am facing a tough dilemma in the coming months.

It is tough to vouch for myself as a teacher; it would be easier to have my colleagues or students do so. But let’s say that on an average day if you walked into my classroom, students would be reading, thinking, writing, engaging in text, and generally joyful. Throughout a year with me, they would learn to love reading more, learn to love expressing themselves in writing more, develop their skills in both, and become more confident in their own selves as they grow up. I have been in recent years working on building up the A.P. program and various writing initiatives at my school, and I participate on the Instructional Leadership Team. I am, in addition, a co-coach of the slam poetry team. My students’ writing has been published on both Medium and TeenInk, where several of them have been recognized as daily #1 hits. I have led students through Shakespeare and Steinbeck, through argumentative, analytical, and narrative writing. I still have a lot to learn and many ways to grow, but I do not believe in any bone of my body that my school or students will be happy to see me go.

The reason my job has been reduced is because our school’s budget for next year has taken a roughly $300,000 hit. This loss is a combination of teacher salary increases, the loss of several grants, a reduction in projected enrollment numbers (12 fewer students), and a districtwide cut across all schools.

And since this will be a question, the reason it is me, as opposed to some other teacher, who is losing much of her job, is that BPS, like many districts, operates under a “Last in, First out,” policy. This policy dictates that the newest teacher is the one who must get cut first, the second newest second, and so on and so forth. Budgets are split by department, and I am the newest humanities teacher, so I therefore must go first. My effectiveness (or lack thereof) or quality of performance is not at all a factor in this situation. [If you are curious about my effectiveness or quality of performance, I have received all proficient ratings all my years of teaching. And though it is not in the purview of this op-ed, I believe my students would give you details if you asked them.]. For more interest in opposition to Last In, First Out, you can look out the Vergara case from earlier this year:

The reason our school has lost so much money for this upcoming year is that the district has announced that next year we will be operating on a $50 million shortfall. ( Why? The short answer is that the district has lost students to outside schools (out of district charters, private schools, suburban districts) and that state and federal funding has been severely reduced. More and more charter schools are appearing, and more and more wealthy families who can afford to are taking their children out of the district, reducing state and federal funding. This is unfortunately a self-perpetuating cycle. Once people start to leave and funding starts to decrease, quality starts to decrease, so more people leave. And so on.

The long answer is that the funding given to us by State Laws Chapter 46 and Chapter 70 is not equitable. Chapter 46 provides compensation for losses of large numbers of students to charter schools from a public district by reimbursing the district for the loss of these students. Chapter 70, perhaps the more important law here, is a law that grants state aid to public school districts.**

*The paragraph below has been REVISED (thank you to commenter below for the sources!):

Unfortunately, Chapter 70 is calculated based on a combination of property tax revenue and income taxes. ( Given that in Boston, property values are disproportionately high (even if only half of the property is taxable and therefore included in the calculation) and a huge portion of the population makes a lot of money working for tax-exempt organizations, so income is also measured very high, Boston is seen as a very wealthy district and this calculation gets skewed out of our favor. In fact, BPS pretty much never sees the money Chapter 70 assumes we have; those people’s children for the most part don’t go to traditional Boston Public Schools, and their income tax goes to the state. This is like a perfect storm for BPS: unlike an area like Lawrence, which has low property values, low incomes, and a student population that represents these issues; the Boston that Ch. 70 is measuring is a very different Boston than you see in a school like mine. My school is 75% free and reduced lunch, 97% minority. If a student is in my school, he or she almost certainly knows about welfare and food stamps, knows about the criminal justice system, is an immigrant or refugee (first or second generation), or lives in a rented home or in public housing. Sometimes all four.

Also unfortunately, the amount of money the state is allocating to Chapter 46 is also declining. While I cannot pin down a source on the decline or on if the state has been sufficiently compensating BPS (among other districts), rumors abound that Chapter 46 is a law that the state hasn’t exactly stood behind. The rumors say that the state is not allocating enough money to Chapter 46 in the budget, so the money isn’t making it to school districts like ours, who need it desperately[the latest amount I heard is $18million short, but, again, I do not have a source other than general BTU/BPS hearsay].

So, Boston Public Schools is $50 million short. In a time when education reform is a hot topic and the XQ Super School project is getting people excited about rethinking schools and our own Boston Teacher Residency is innovating the way the whole country thinks about training teachers, we cannot find enough money to pay for the bare minimum of the schools we already have, nor the teachers who teach in them. What is innovation for, if we can’t even pay for what we have?

I wish I could say my school is alone in these losses, that it’s just me facing a tough dilemma. But it’s not. Articles and Facebook posts are pouring out. People and schools are reeling. It’s bad. It’s been bad, and it’s been getting worse and worse slowly, but this year is a particularly heavy hit.

And the reality is: we need more money. Not less.

People have been looking for someone to be angry with.

Do not be angry with my headmaster. While he cannot save my job as is, he has salvaged a part of it.

Do not be angry with Superintendent Tommy Chang. He is between a rock and a hard place.

I’m not sure how to feel about Mayor Marty Walsh. He has increased the funding he’s given to BPS for two years in a row now. It is hard to pin all the blame on him. But perhaps he could be doing more, or lobbying for the state to do so.*(Again, my commenter below argues that the city should be doing more, based on the Ch. 70 formula).

I’m also not sure how to feel about charter schools. It’s great to innovate. It’s great to serve kids well and teach them well, and many charter schools do so. I do believe that charters have inspired innovation and reform in public schools by challenging us to do better. Clearly many parents are seeking what charter schools offer, so we still have a lot to learn. And many of my good friends teach in charter schools (honestly, I will probably teach in a charter school some day; it seems to be where we are heading). But the facts are also clear that charters can have a large and negative impact on district funding, causing stress for the local traditional public schools like mine. (

But do be angry with our state legislators. Be angry that they passed a law that treated Boston’s kids unfairly; be angry that they didn’t do better math. Be angry with Charlie Baker. Be angry that the people in the State House don’t seem to recognize the desperate situation of our students. Be angry that they are out of touch with what it is like to be poor, to be middle class, to have to eat school lunch, to have to live by the bell. Be angry that they have prioritized something other than children, other than the future, other than education.

Be angry with the federal government too. Be angry that Congress can fund a military that intervenes in over half the countries of the world but cannot seem to pay so that the ceilings on the fifth floor of my school don’t leak when it rains. ( )

Be angry with those philanthropists and reformers who insist on fancy initiatives and consultants, trying to find the silver bullet to solve education, instead of just funding our schools. I appreciate that wealthy people are interested in supporting education, that they are as passionate as I am about fixing schools. I just wish that money would go straight to where it is needed most. ( ;

Be angry that people do not listen to students and do not trust teachers when we try to speak up about what is going on.

Be angry that people are not voting– that people are not paying attention. Be angry that people can live their lives thinking that policy does not affect you or me.

And whatever you do, spread the word: all policy is personal. Call your legislator. Post on Facebook. Email your congressperson. Go to a protest. Go to a local election.

Please, please please: do something for this nation’s schools. We need your help.

**Update 2

A commenter below has indicated that the calculations of Ch. 70 that are currently in place may in fact lay more blame on the city than I originally surmised from my research. See the DESE work here: chrome-extension://bpmcpldpdmajfigpchkicefoigmkfalc/views/app.html

Please note that there is a student-led protest happening at the State of the City Address on Tuesday. You can join.

** Update:

What can you do?
1. Go to the following website and look up your state senator and representative.

2. Send them an email like the one below.
Dear Senator/Representative X,
I am deeply concerned about the BPS budget shortfall this upcoming year. Boston Public Schools cannot operate on the limited budget that has been proposed, and it is clear that the calculations in chapter 70 are inequitable. In addition, we need more money allocated via chapter 46.
The district’s needs are urgent. Our children need your help.
(Your name, phone number, address, and email)
3. Call them and reiterate what the email says so that there is a sense of urgency to the matter.
4. Spread the word. The more people who do this, the more movement we will get.


The writer is a third year Boston Public Schools teacher and a graduate of the Boston Teacher Residency and Yale University. She teaches tenth through twelfth grade.

How to Listen: A Simple Tutorial

In the last several years I have found that many people lack a clear understanding of what is involved in the task of conversation– particularly regarding the art of listening. While this is not a wholly gendered issue, I have found that many men in particular lack the simple skills they need to successfully converse with women on a social level. If you’re unsure if there is a problem, just google “man listening to woman” in comparison to “friends talking.” The images alone speak volumes about a problem of equity in our society that is as simple as understanding how to listen well. After reading the 35 Practical Steps Men can Take to Support Feminism and discussing with several friends item #2 (Share Emotional Labor), I considered that in many ways, most people are not provided direct instruction on how to do this task.


Given that I learned the art of conversation by reading up on the matter, and by taking a class on listening (as part of a counseling course), I figured I would write a simple informational text on the matter for those who desire to do the same.

Please note that conversational patterns are, for the most part, gendered. Research has shown that men tend to compete for air time, while women tend to take turns and share air time. I am a woman, and I am certain that my gender has informed this tutorial in some way, so please take what is relevant and helpful for you, and leave the rest behind.

Listening is an act of service

The first thing to understand about listening is that it serves both the listener and the speaker. Listening, at its best, is a genuine expression of interest, curiosity, and care. When we care about people, we want to hear their opinions, ideas, feelings, and experiences. Listening can be fun. It can be a relief after a long day (especially for those of us who find it very exhausting coming up with things to say aloud) to listen to a good friend. It can be a great joy. It can also be an honor when people share with us.

But listening is also a sacrificial act of service. Truly good listeners recognize that, through their act of listening, they are facilitating spaces for speakers to become more fulfilled and realized versions of themselves, and skillful listeners craft those spaces carefully and lovingly, without self-interest in mind. A listener must listen compassionately and openly, ready to trust the speaker, to fully engage and try out their ideas, to validate and affirm them. At times a listener might need to work hard to find a way to be interested in what is being said. A listener may need to practice some patience.

No matter how it goes, I find that listening goes best when the listener clearly understands the desires of the speaker.

The Three Types of Listening

If you are setting out to do the service of listening, your first task, after finding someone to listen to, is to determine what that person is most looking for from you. Is that person looking for someone to whom he can vent about his day? Is he looking for someone who will be entertained by a story that happened to him that he found funny? Is he wrestling with a problem that he is trying to solve? Is he struggling with a dilemma and seeking advice? Is he looking for a way to share and explore his own ideas? Is he feeling really excited about something new he learned and does he want to share that?

I have found there are three main types of listening: Listen to Nod, Listen to Push, and Listen to Ask. In most conversations there will be plenty of overlap and a constant, natural movement between the three, but this generalized schema for understanding the possible tasks of a listener will help you develop the skills to deal with all of them, separately or together.

As you determine what your speaker is looking for, make sure that whatever you give is genuine. Each of the main three types of listening can be rewarding, fun, and relationship-building, as long as you truly care and want to offer this service to the person. If you are faking it, both of you will regret the conversation shortly after it begins.

  1. Listen to Nod

Listening to nod is a type of listening in which you share in a person’s emotions, feelings, and recountings of what has happened to him or her, as if you are nodding along. If you are familiar with the “It’s not about the nail” video on Youtube, you may have an understanding of what a speaker is looking for in the Listening to Nod category. In this category, your primary task is to agree with what the speaker is saying. To express surprise, shock, awe, or joy when the speaker gives the punch line, or to express disgust, horror, sadness, pain or any other emotion the speaker is experiencing as the speaker explains whatever has caused that emotion. Your primary job is to agree– not just with your words, but with your heart. During this type of listening, you offer your own emotional space as a mirror and additional space for him or her to express what he is going through. This can be nice, because it doesn’t require you to problem solve or think very hard… you just get to sit back, enjoy the ride, and share life with someone. Sitting with someone attentively, making the right facial expressions, and giving vocalizations of assent are the key task of a listener here.

Some examples of this type of listening are when a speaker says, “I had a rough day today.” Or “the funniest thing happened to me today!” or “I just called because I need someone to vent to,” or “Oh my gosh have you seen that video clip?” In all of these cases, a speaker is introducing his or her desire to share emotions with another person. As the chosen listener, you should feel honored that you get to participate in the speaker’s life, and– if you have chosen your friends well– find yourself entertained, horrified, or rewarded with a sense of camaraderie– of doing life together and getting to share the things that happen to us with each other.

Please note that every person has a different threshold for how much attention they want in a one-on-one (or other type of) Listening to Nod conversation. Some people need ten seconds to vent, some people need an hour and a half. As you get to know your friends as speakers, you can cater to these particularities in their speaking habits. Definitely don’t force a speaker to continue speaking about something s/he is done talking about.

If you are unsure whether a speaker wants to continue or stop, the easiest way to check is to wait, silently, for about 2-3 full seconds after a speaker finishes talking. If the speaker still has something to say, the speaker will use this silence as an indication to continue. If the speaker is finished, his/her body language will alter and he/she may even say something like “Okay. I’m done now. How was your day?” You can also use these several seconds to process what was said and come up with a helpful response (i.e. a follow up question; see below). Just don’t be in a hurry.

Wait time: it’s the trick.

  1. Listen to Push

Listening to Push is the opposite end of the spectrum from Listening to Nod. In this case, a speaker is facing a true dilemma and is seeking help because he or she genuinely doesn’t know what to do and wants to be absolved of her own responsibility in the matter. In this case, the speaker is hoping to be led a certain direction by whatever wisdom or outside perspective you can offer. In the “It’s not about the nail” video, the listener interpreted the speaker’s desires as a need to a ‘Listen to Push,’ which is why he offered suggestions and fixes, and pointed to certain problems. This is a common mistake made in inter-gender conversations by men, who rarely Listen to Nod with each other, so when women ask Listening to Nod of them, they are confused, and instead resort to Listening to Push. Women, who are looking for emotional support and validation, suddenly find themselves defensive and pushed, and, as a result, they feel frustrated. Such miscommunication is why it is so essential to understand the speaker’s desires when you set out to listen.

In the case of Listening to Push, it is the listener’s job to first ask a series of questions to truly get a grasp of the situation and the speaker’s desires. Clarify as much as you need to until you fully understand what happened. The speaker will appreciate fully rehashing his or her problem, and the help you can give will improve exponentially once you have a full grasp from all your clarifying questions. Then, and only then, it is the listener’s job to offer leading questions, probing questions, suggestions, ideas, and relevant pieces of evidence and advice.

Cues for Listen to Push are when speakers say things like, “What do you think I should do?” or “I don’t understand what this means. What does this mean to you?” or “Can you walk me through what you did when this happened to you?” These are direct asks for help and advice.

Please note that some emotionally immature people will make an ask for Listen to Push and then, once they start receiving advice, will change their minds and revert to Listen to Nod. This happens because the prospect of solving the problem is too much of an emotional unknown, and it is easier to maintain the initial emotional state. In this case, you should return to Listen to Nod in order to be kind to the speaker.

  1. Listen to Ask

Perhaps my favorite type of listening is Listening to Ask. This type of listening is an act of service where the listener gets to be a part of shaping, forming, and supporting the realization of the speaker’s ideas. Through genuine curiosity and well-made follow-up questions, a listener creates a space for a speaker to expand upon, realize, and articulate his or her ideas on a matter. If you have ever seen a speaker really excited to talk about what he or she is talking about, there is probably a very skilled listener nearby, participating in Listening to Ask.

In Listening to Ask, a listener pays attention to what a speaker is really interested in and cares about, and begins to ask questions whose answers the listener is curious to hear and the speaker is excited to share more about. Some people who are very passionate about their career fields or about certain political ideas or a certain place they traveled to or a book they read can go on about these things forever if they are speaking to the right person. These conversations result from questions like, “Have you decided who you are voting for?” or “How did you get into that field?” or “Have you been following those protests? What do you think?” or “What did you think of that movie?”

And the listener, through this, learns something new, potentially developing a new interest or idea to check out. Listening to Ask is a great way to learn, to develop friendships with interesting people, and to support the intellectual stimulation and idea creation of your brilliant and interesting friends.

The Importance of Follow-Up Questions

I find that the biggest mistake made by amateur, unskilled listeners, is the inability to come up with successful follow-up questions in the pace of a conversation. This is absolutely crucial to being a good listener in all three types of listening, because it indicates (a) that you are interested, (b) what specifically you are more interested in, and (c) where the conversation should go. It is a huge service to the speaker, who is already bearing much of the burden of the conversation by actually coming up with words and tone and energy and ideas. Conversation requires multiple sides, and questions are the glue that holds everything together, the gas that keeps everything going.

We have all been with someone who likes us and cares about us and asks us “How was your day?” to which we respond, “Not the best, but I’m okay,” and then the person, instead of picking up on this, says simply, “Oh, I’m sorry.” The person has correctly interpreted that we are desiring Listen to Nod. But the person doesn’t actually get to the important listening part, because she doesn’t help you share! She has left you in silence still, because she hasn’t done the digging you needed her to do.

This is essential, especially for many women and members of other marginalized groups, who feel that expressing their emotions out loud is a burden upon others that only invalidates them as stable and mature conversational partners and idea makers. They fear launching into a story of their day because you might not emotionally meet them there, and you might criticize them for it or not fully believe them. That is part of society’s narrative of women especially. So some people will couch their desires to be heard in “but it’s okay” sentiments that give their listeners an easy opt-out. As a listener, you should be aware of your speaker’s fear of judgment and fear of being invalidated and work extra hard to mirror the speaker’s emotions. This may feel awkward at first, but it will become easier with practice. If emotions make you uncomfortable, the intellectual work of crafting perfect follow-up questions can keep you occupied, because this is exactly the space where good follow-up questions make all the difference.

A good follow-up question must meet the following requirements:

1. It must build on what the speaker just said. In the above scenario, the correct follow-up question is “Oh, what happened?”

2. It should dig further into a specific detail that you (the listener) want to genuinely know more about, preferably using details you already know from before. In the above scenario, our speaker, especially if she’s particularly wary, likely will respond vaguely to the first follow-up question: “Just… working with my partner Sally can be really hard.” To follow-up on this comment, the listener could ask directly “What did Sally do today?” That is fine, but an even better question, if the listener had already have heard a story about Sally before, is to offer the story to the speaker first. “Did she mess up the office files again?”

What this shows is that (a) you heard her last time she talked about Sally, and you were interested enough to remember it, and (b) you want her to tell her story. You have taken the burden off of her to jump into an emotional tale she’s afraid of being judged for. I like this method a lot when listening. And don’t worry if the story you suggest is totally off! Correcting you is a much easier task than entertaining you, so your speaker will feel at ease almost immediately in telling you the actual juicy drama of the day.

3. One follow-up question is never enough. You should ask enough follow-up questions to fully exhaust the subject, but not exhaust the speaker. Let him or her really talk out what he/she really wants to talk about. Keep asking until he/she is done. Ask what he/she is going to do about it. Ask if it’s ever happened before. Ask if the other workers down the hall had the same problem. If she is still interested in talking about it, and you’re still enjoying listening, then keep it going.

4. Grab the out (or plan it). When you feel the speaker has nearly exhausted the topic, you should listen for potential questions you can ask that will move the conversation in a new direction. If none present themselves as you are wrapping up the subject, you may wish to cast around internally for other topics you want to bring up. Be ready with an out for your speaker, if your speaker doesn’t provide you one already (your speaker may do this if he/she scores high on the fairness scale. See below*). This can keep the conversation going.

Body Language

Last, but certainly not least, body language is very important in listening. If you are checking your phone, looking about the room, leaning away from a person, interrupting, or otherwise indicating that you have better things to do or are looking for an opportunity to leave, you are not being a good listener. It’s not just that you’re being rude– you are giving cues that the speaker isn’t worth your attention, and you are distracting the speaker from his or her primary task. The general rule of thumb is that a good listener should physically mirror the person he/she is talking to. If your speaker leans forward, you lean forward. If your speaker sits up, you sit up. If your speaker turns to face the room, you stand next to him, facing the room.

For the most part, your body will do this automatically. We are programmed to communicate our care and interest in people through body language and tone. We are programmed to mirror each other physically and emotionally. Mostly, in this day and age, you need to simply be aware of the draw of certain distractions and be able to resist the temptation to give into them.

*A Note on Fairness

Fairness is the awareness and willingness to take turns in the course of conversation. It is an official score on certain personality inventories (some marriage success research has been done using the fairness scale). If you have ever met a highly talkative person who is a particularly poor listener, you have met someone who scores low on the fairness scale. That person probably talked your ear off for an excessive amount of time, possibly bored you and ignored certain social cues from you, and still didn’t know how to fix the situation so she/he kept talking on, spending all your listening energy.

On the other hand, the people with whom you have conversations that seem to be equally balanced, a perfect tennis match of words and ideas, probably would earn very high scores on the fairness scale. They believe in taking turns. They believe if one of you shares about your day fully, then it’s the other person’s turn to share about his day fully. They are interested and interesting. These people will likely use up their airtime comfortably and then easily turn the conversation in your direction and serve you as a listener in return. Hopefully these conversations pass easily, automatically, with a natural flow you barely even notice. These conversations are a joy.

If you are a really excellent listener, please be aware that you may be guilted into spending more time listening to unfair people in social settings, simply because you will do it and because those people will eat up your listening skills in self-centered wonder. Please do not do that. Instead, you should send the unfair person this article, and go find someone better to have a conversation with.

On Free Speech

Re: Conor Friedersdorf, the Christakis family, Mizzou, and Yale

I feel like many people who are talking about “Free Speech” right now are a little confused about what the first amendment says. Given that I teach U.S. history, I thought I’d help clarify. When I consider my first amendment rights, I consider countries like Syria in 2011, where if I spoke out in opposition of the government, I would likely be tortured or killed– by the government. I think of countries like Iran, where if I practiced a faith other than the state religion, there would likely be serious repercussions– from the government. I think of the essential nature of a free press and how we struggled to understand what happened in Ukraine two years ago because it was so hard for the press to get in. I consider many of my students, who are in the U.S. because they fled oppressive regimes that lacked the rights our first amendment provides. I even consider some of the black students at Yale, Howard, and Mizzou, who have tried to say their piece and now are receiving threats of death and violence. That is not okay. Nor is hate speech. Nor is assault. These are all clearly elaborated upon within the U.S. legal code and court precedents. We don’t have to worry about a slippery slope, because everything is clearly defined for us.

So let’s set boundaries– as long as we are not talking about direct threats, hate speech, assault/other illegal action, or government repression of ideas, I want to make this clear: if you say something, and someone criticizes you for saying it, no one is limiting your free speech rights. That is exactly what open dialogue is. If you say something particularly stupid about your work in a public fashion, and your boss finds out, you may lose your job for being stupid. But no one is limiting your free speech rights. If you say something racist (mildly, subtly, sort of, or overtly), and someone says, “You know, that was racist,” STILL, no one is limiting your free speech rights.

You may be particularly sensitive to the R-word. Or to the F-word. Or to other people’s anger and pain. It may make you uncomfortable. Or you may feel like someone yelling at you (even if she did receive a death threat from which it was your responsibility, in your job description, to protect her) shows that she is rude, out of line, unhelpful to the cause, immature, or contrary to the way things should go. You can think that. You can even say that. And you will probably receive a firestorm of opposing articles written by some brilliant people, telling you why they think what you think is so problematic. Maybe you will learn a little bit about how sometimes the things that seem the least racist are the things that are most insidious and problematic. Maybe you will learn about the experiences of people of color in America. Maybe you will learn about what part of the narrative you missed. Maybe you will just deeply dislike being criticized.

And still, hooray! We all are practicing free speech. So let’s move on to some better questions and try to make this movement truly productive and culture-changing:

(a) What is racism like, and why didn’t I see it in that one instance? Is it possible that I am blind to the racism that I think I am against? Why didn’t I fully believe my peers of color about their experiences? Why do I struggle to trust their words and opinions? Why does their pain make me uncomfortable? What historical backgrounds and biases do I need to understand? Where can I find out more?
(b) What do white people need to do and learn, and how do white people need to change, in order to change racist cultures in America? How can I be a part of that?
(c) How can people in power on these campuses do more not only to protect their students of color, but to understand them (and their experiences) better, and through that understanding, naturally increase how welcome and at home they feel?

How do we change the world? Part II: A Treatise on Human Nature

Scale of Goodness

Click Here for Full Sized Graphic

A Treatise on Human Nature

No human is fundamentally, inherently, completely evil. While we all have our personality differences, and we all probably have self-interested, competitive, lazy, or ignorant tendencies, the actual completion of evil action that hurts others doesn’t come naturally to us. As much as we have instincts to protect ourselves, we also have instincts of compassion and the desire to please others.

This is why the question of evil is such a fascinating one. Arguably, all that is wrong with the world is the fault of humans. Yet humans aren’t born monsters. Human nature doesn’t work like that; someone whom we call “evil” is someone who has acted in an evil way enough times to develop a habit of evil, at which point it is a character trait. But evil isn’t a personality. We don’t put it on our driver’s licenses like our eye color or our height. And you might even find that it changes situationally. Humans who do evil things become that way because they are hurt, broken, ignorant, or put into situations that somehow bring out the worst in them.

This doesn’t mean we don’t have choices. But, unfortunately, choice-making is not actually one of our strengths. Humans are pretty terrible at thinking through our actions, words, and lives, and for the most part we live dumbly and uncritically—following habits and expectations laid out for us.

Nor does this mean that we are born in a vacuum. On the contrary, each of us is born into a position of either privilege or disadvantage, usually related to class, nationality, skin color, education, language/culture, or gender. As we make choices within our positions of power, we move up and down the scale of human goodness. If we make a choice to hurt people in our own self-interest, we move towards evil. If we make a choice to do good for people against our own self-interest, we move towards good. If we have little power in the world, our actions affect few others, so we stay near the middle of the scale. If we have great power in the world, our actions have huge repercussions for others, so we swing about wildly.

Many people would say that the more power you have, the harder it is to do good. This is why we are so impressed by people in power whom we admire; they’ve kept their heads and their hearts together. I’m not sure if I agree. I think the question is really who you are listening to. Are the people, systems, and institutions around you reminding you of your principles and purpose? Are they expecting you to do good? Are they giving you regular feedback about your character and its importance to them? Or are they encouraging you to win money at all cost? Are they encouraging you to protect your own interests? Are they encouraging you to ignore the needs of the wider world?

This is why systems and institutions and communities are so important: they either help us become better humans or make us worse humans.

One of my friends from college, Tim (name changed for this) and I met in a summer sublet. He was tall, smart, and goofy. Our first conversation together was 8 hours long. We discussed urban education, the nature of evil, the ways cities are structured, what causes we most care about, our families, our friends, and so much more. He wanted a comfortable life for his family, for the most part. He didn’t need to do anything heroic. But he would be willing to donate or share or help out if one of his friends asked. And he cared.

Three years later, I ran into Tim in Boston, where we both now live and work. He had become a consultant, and he was with some of his friends from work. We were excited to see each other. I joined them all for dinner and we made conversation. A few things quickly became clear: (1) they had zero interest in, or respect for, my job as an urban public school teacher, and (2) Tim had become obsessed with earning money. He and one of his colleagues spent much of the evening bemoaning the fact that they went to school for the wrong thing and if they had only started out at X they would be now earning so and so.

At the end of the night, I wished him well as I hopped onto the city bus to take me home. I haven’t seen him since, though I’m curious if he’s changed again.

Tim’s concept of success had been completely reshaped in the little bubble in which he was living. There was no sign left of the fascinating guy I had met in college, who cared so much about the world and was so interested in how it worked, who only wanted a comfortable family life. All that was left was a cookie-cutter Wall Street craving for more money and the perfect American life: 1 suburban home, 2.5 children, and enough vacation time to make it all pleasant. At least, that was what was being exhibited in our conversation with his coworkers.

I don’t think Tim is an evil person. However, I don’t think he is consciously making choices to be a force for good in the world either, and as a result, because of his situation and actions, he’s drifting down the scale. Then I wonder– if I asked him to donate to my classroom, would he be relieved to have the opportunity to do good? If I asked for his help, would he come in and volunteer? How much of doing good is merely the opportunity?

A few cautions about this graphic. I agonized over whether to create a separate category between 8 and 9 for people who at least keep themselves informed about issues, desire to change the wider world and do good, and like to have conversations about how to make the world a better place. I eventually decided this didn’t merit its own category. For all of us, our beliefs lead to action in some way, and the ways we exhibit our goodness are our own. If you are having conversations about the world, then you may in fact be a leader in some way, because you’re helping shape other people’s ideas and drive the conversation. And if you keep it on your to do list forever but never do anything, then your actions aren’t doing good for the world, so I am not sure you should get credit for it.

Lastly, I know that most of us want to be in one category but are actually in another, or we drift between two depending on what situation we are in, or we evaluate ourselves in different ways at different stages in our lives. This is by no means intended to be comprehensive, judgmental, or final. It’s a thought experiment that’s meant to start a conversation about human nature. No one’s pointing fingers.

From Robert Mugabe to Mother Theresa, Cheney to Obama, your mother to your best friend, we all fit somewhere on the scale. Where are you? Would you draw the scale differently? What values and principles guide the categories you create?

Especially for world changers, I think it’s worthwhile to think about the other people making up the world, how to mobilize or cater to them, or how to set up systems and institutions for them to be able to do better. And for all the other 7s and 8s trying to be 9s… I’m with you!