The Art of Listening — John-Paul Hayworth (’01)

This month we begin a new series of posts in which we invite BIC alumni to contribute articles connecting their own work, education, experiences, or interests to their BIC education. Our first contribution is from John-Paul Hayworth (’01). We hope you enjoy, and if you are interested in contributing an article, email us at


I live in Washington, D.C. It is an amazing place, not because of the monuments, but in spite of them. The history of this city is vibrant, and largely ignored by anyone outside its boundaries. Just like its children.

About 10 years ago, the District reformed its education system. It centralized most of the authority under the Mayor. Today, every education policy making body in the District reports directly or indirectly to the Mayor, except two: the Council of the District of Columbia and the DC State Board of Education.

I work for the DC State Board of Education. And yes, I know DC isn’t a state (yet.). The District has over 80,000 school children. We are failing them. The majority of our students are not prepared for college or careers when they graduate, if they graduate at all.

I am the head of a small agency that has very little statutory power. My elected Board has approval authority over statewide policies like education standards and graduation requirements. Our biggest strength, really, is the bully pulpit. Or, in less aggressive words, outreach and engagement.

In December 2016, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA governs the ratings of schools around the country. Unlike No Child Left Behind, ESSA provides much more authority to the states to determine what a successful school looks like.

In general, meetings hosted by government agencies like mine, occur in the evening for a couple hours at a school or library. But the majority of our families do not live near the school where their children attend. Many of our parents have multiple jobs and can’t afford to take off work to attend a meeting. And if the parents come to a meeting, who is making dinner or providing childcare? Should the meetings focus on a certain school population or the neighborhood around them?

In the District, we held two series of meetings with community members to discuss the ESSA plan and what it would mean for them. But this time we made a concerted effort to do things differently. We held meetings at 7:00am during drop off times, we co-hosted with existing community groups, we created a website and an app, and we provided live interpretation.

People involved in education policy tend to throw around words like “outreach” and “engagement” a lot, without really thinking about what they mean. Reaching out to people and truly engaging them doesn’t happen when you are standing at the front of a room telling them what you think they should know. Frankly, it requires people who love to talk instead being quiet and listening.

Listening to people and hearing their stories as a learning tool is something that was reinforced by my time in the BIC. Rather than reading books about events and people, we focused on a culture’s self-expression: their art, literature, and actions. We tried to know them through their eyes, not through our own.

It is that experience that I bring to my work in education. Not to speak for the children and parents in the District, but to bring them the microphone and listen.

When was the last time you really listened?

John-Paul Hayworth (’01) is the Executive Director of the DC State Board of Education.

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