Children Will Listen | Hooray for Monday

November 29, 2021

By Aleta Margolis, Founder and President, Center for Inspired Teaching

Hooray for Monday is a weekly blog filled with questions, ideas, reflections, and actions we can all take to remodel the school experience for students. 


"Careful the things you say Children will listen Careful the things you do Children will see – and learn Children may not obey, but children will listen Children will look to you for which way to turn To learn what to be Careful before you say ‘Listen to me’ Children will listen"  - Stephen Sondheim,  Into the Woods

These immortal words were written by the legendary composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, who died this past Friday at the age of 91. They are lyrics from the musical Into the Woods. They are also words you may hear teachers singing in the Inspired Teaching Institute. As long-time Inspired Teachers know, singing is a significant part of our professional learning, and Children Will Listen is one of our longtime favorites.

A while back I wrote about why we sing with teachers, noting that singing creates connections and builds community, reminds us to breathe, and can even elevate our moods. Singing connects us to our elders and allows us to carry forward their legacy. Singing uplifts the artistry of each song’s composer and lyricist, and of every person who’s ever sung that song before.

Singing also connects us with the meaning of words. And Sondheim’s words resonate because they remind us of what is important: Everything we do – as teachers, as parents, as adults who interact with children – matters. What we say, what we do, and how we say and do it affect the children in our care.

Can you think of adults who took those words seriously when you were a child? Who spoke with respect and intentionality when they communicated with you? Who knew you were listening and acted accordingly?

As educators, we spend a tremendous amount of time trying to get children to listen to us. Sondheim’s lyrics recognize this reality, and caution us: “Children may not obey, but children will listen.” Indeed listening and obeying are two different things, and when we say we want our students to listen, we often mean we want them to obey.

Instead of working so hard to get children to obey, our energy might be better invested in listening to them. If we listen authentically to the children in our lives, as they do to us, we may discover we are changed by what we hear. We too will “see – and learn” about what children need, and also what they can offer.

The power we wield as teachers, school leaders, and parents can be an overwhelming responsibility. It can also be a source of joy, for ourselves and our students, if we exercise it with the proper care.

As I remember and appreciate Stephen Sondheim, I will do my best to carry forward the work of the adults who took his words seriously when I was a child, and to listen to the young people in my life, knowing they are listening to me.

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