Not all of us have Soft Skills

This is my post for Riley Lark’s Virtual Conference on Soft Skills

Three. That’s how many different times I’ve started writing this blasted thing. I actually finished a two thousand word post that I almost published. It didn’t really go anywhere – but meandered with fake conversations and some overarching principles and then fizzled out right before you would expect an explosive, pee-releasing BANG.

Because – and you may find this hard to believe – I have nothing to say. Nada.

Even writing this introduction is a way to avoid saying what I have to say. Zilch.

So I’m starting over. On the date this post is due. Here’s the problem.

I have no grand philosophy. I don’t garner the respect of all my students. Some like me, some pretend to like me, some dislike me. I am not beloved. I am not universally hated. I am awkward. I am not a master of soft skills.

When I am in the hallways and I see a kid, I wave and smile and say hello. I actually do this obsessively, and from a distance. Sometimes I secretly think I resemble Miss America. On a float, hand raised high, fanning left and right, as I rumble by the crowds. Just far enough away to feel safe, just smiley enough to say “I care! From! Over! Here!” When I walk with a student, or sit down to have breakfast with a student in the Commons, or have smalltalk in homeroom, I tend to be… a little… well…

Mr. Shah: So, how’s math class going this year?
Stu: Pretty good.
Mr. Shah: I like to hear that.

(awkward silence)

(continues)

(yes, one more second here)

Mr. Shah: Watch anything interesting on TV lately?

(Sometimes that last line might say “Read any good books lately?” or “How do you like the new Justin Bieber single?”)

So first off, I’d like to say to all of you out there reading the virtual conference on Soft Skills, feeling like (a) you are sucky, (b) you don’t make every kid feel like they are one-of-a-kind-and-special, and (c) doo doo…

You probably are…

…and I’m right there with you.

At the same time, I don’t think I have to be awkward forever. I bet these “soft skills” are learnable and I’ll get there.  I’ll get to the point where kids dump Gatorade on me at the end of the year [1].

To avoid having virtual tomatoes – or real tomatoes for that matter – pelted at me, I scrounged up one concrete thing I have done in the past that might fall under the “soft skills” rubric.

It was maybe my fifth or sixth day of teaching. Ever. The Smartboard was broken and I had to improvise my Algebra II class – holy crap holy crap holy crap holy crap. Trust me, this is not one of those “and then I learned I had it in me all along” stories. I SUCKED. Not a “I wish I had said this instead of that” sucked, but a “I left my kids confused, drooling, grunting meeee do not get. brain hurt. hit me over the head with that textbook and put me out of my misery” sucked.

That night, I called my sister upset. She said “take a mulligan.” After I asked her what the heck that was (FYI: me:sports::oil:vinegar), I replied, “better yet, I’ll ask them permission to take a mulligan.”

The next class, I got on my knees – and pleaded for a second chance.  I delivered a (practiced) passionate, funny, histrionic apologia . I followed it with a killer lesson.

The following year, I was teaching quadratics, and I was running out of time. (Aren’t we always?) At the last moment I was asked to teach applications of quadratics — some crazy word problems. I came up with a plan to have students work in groups and present solutions, and it was going to be short and sweet, and then they would get an open-note take home assessment. It was a plan. It wasn’t a well-thought-out plan. Which consequently means it wasn’t a well-executed plan. On the take home assessment, my students got Cs and Ds and Fs. Like all of my students. I don’t mind when I get a bimodal distribution. But this clearly wasn’t their fault. It was my fault. I did a terrible job.

Enter mulligan. I started the next class apologizing. I told them I had screwed up royally. I told them that I thought I had a good way to teach these quadratic word problems, and it clearly wasn’t. And so I failed at my job, and in this case, I failed them. I had a conversation about what went wrong in the way I planned the lessons. I also cancelled the assessment grades.

Honestly, it didn’t feel sheepish going in front of them, admitting weakness and failure. (I thought it would.) It felt good. Real good. And my kids appreciated and accepted my honesty.

Awww, Mr. Shah is a person.

Awww, Mr. Shah makes mistakes.

Awww, Mr. Shah makes up for his mistakes instead of blaming me.

Awww, Mr. Shah is trying to do right by us.

Awww, Mr. Shah respects us.

Awww, Mr. Shah is on my side.

Now, like in golf, you can’t pull this one out of the bag of tricks all the time. But there are moments when it is can really help. And not only your relationship with your kids, but also by giving you a breather – a second chance to right some wrong.

It goes hand in hand with something I put on my course expectations.

I feel like I have a contract with these kids. I expect a lot from them, so I want them to expect a lot from me. They are accountable to me, so I am accountable to them. Not to my school, not to my department, but to them. I also never want them to feel alone – backed into a corner where they have no one to turn to. I want them to know they can always turn to me, because we’re in this boat together.

I got this philosophy from my beloved English teacher in high school. We’d get our essays back with three different colored checks on the front page, and copious amounts of feedback. One day, well into the school year, I asked him what those colored checks meant. He replied, “I read each paper three times. The first time to get a sense of the argument. The second time to give you feedback. The third time to make sure I was fair grading and wasn’t affected by a bad mood. The checks help me keep things in order.” He then followed with the thing that stuck: “I know you guys put a lot of effort and time into these. I want to make sure I do the same.” By respecting our essays, he respected us.

Now, here’s where things get hairy. I write this, and it has that “awww, shucks” ring to it. I remind my kids that I’m always on their side. I show my kids I am human and can connect with them. But remember the beginning of this post, where I started. I don’t have soft skills. Miss America on a float here, remember. I have failed.

Reminding kids that I am always on your side in words and (more importantly) in actions doesn’t always work. Sometimes I can’t reach my kids through an encouraging email, or working with them individually.

Very occasionally a kid comes with (or develops) a chip on his or her shoulder, and when presented with my teaching style – all founded on being clear, consistent, and fair – they shut down or they act out. Most of the time, they haven’t dealt with a teacher with firm expectations and firm follow through. (I don’t have a lot of wiggle room in terms of my expectations.) They’re teenagers, and they resist [2] – and I refuse to lower or change my expectations for them. There inevitably comes a battle of wills.

It’s at this point that I realize that as these students dig their heels into the ground, and as I dig my heels into the ground, I have failed. Because the mantra I am always on your side doesn’t apply. We don’t have a common goal anymore. [3]

Consequence? Neither of us win – both of us lose.

I can count these students on one hand, but they can (and have) defined the atmosphere of a class. That sucks, because who wants to have a class which you like going to less than your other classes? I don’t have a bag of tricks for these kids yet. The unreachable kid – I don’t know how to reach ‘em.

This is where I am at in terms of soft skills.

So yeah. I didn’t want to end this on a “feel good” note. I want to say that soft skills are hard, and they don’t come naturally to everyone. The fact that this was so hard for me to write shows me that it taps into some serious insecurities I have as a teacher. But they are important, because they keep you and kids on the same side. You’re a team. When you’re not on the same side, you need to ask how is it that you can be on the same side again. But this isn’t a feel-good-I’m-great post. I can’t always say I’m successful.

So to all of you who are sick of reading how awesome everyone else is – me too. But let’s make a pact. Let’s consciously work on it to make things better.

POST SCRIPT

Other things I do that might qualify as soft skills:

  1. I always keep candy on my desk, and if a student comes by (for almost any reason) I’ll offer ‘em some. I’ll often offer students I don’t teach candy too, when they come in the office and look a little down or worried or anxious.
  2. I write a single letter at the end of the year and distribute it to my seniors (but  I address each of the letters individually and print them out on school stationary and sign them and put them in school envelopes). The letters are sappy, chronicle our year, and give unsolicited advice.
  3. At the beginning of the year, I have students fill out a google form with some basic information about them, their calculator serial number, and with some questions they must answer from the course expectations. I also ask what they are most worried about. I then write, to the students who say things other than “nothing,” individual emails to these students addressing their concerns and reminding them they always can come to me if things get stressful.
  4. On the first few assessments, I’ll have a question where I have students write about what they’re feeling about the class, or about the material, or what they’re nervous about, or what they still don’t get. It’s all pretty open ended. I write short responses to each of these.

 

[1] I don’t remember who said that. But it’s an evocative image, no?

[2] Heck, I’m known for being resistant too. It’s not just teenagers.

[3] To be clear, it’s not like I just leave things be. I meet with these students individually a few times to see what’s going on in a non-confrontational way, I ask the student “what can I do to help things? I want us to be on the same side again.” I make our conversation a give-and-take, without lowering my expectations or giving the student things I am not willing to give every student. I bring the adviser or dean into the conversation. I engage the parents. Usually these things work to some degree. But there are those few kids where nothing I do works.

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9 comments

  1. I just wanted to say that this post was truly exceptional. I’m not a teacher (maybe someday,) but I follow your blog because I love math. I too have poor soft skills and often feel like I’m the only person in the world who “doesn’t get it.”

    And now I don’t.

    So thank you for posting this.

    -Nick

  2. Thanks for writing this post. I so appreciate your honest sharing of experiences in your class – they very much echo some of my own experiences. Even after all the years that I have been teaching, the connecting with all my students still eludes me … I too struggle with the soft skills. Over time I have made changes to improve relationships but there are always the two or three (or more) students who just resist. I’ve come to the realization that they are there to make me a better teacher, to challenge me and make me think more deeply about my practice.

    Your students are very lucky to have such a caring teacher :)

  3. This is a fantastic blog entry. It is nice to know that even the teacher heros that we all idolize are on a journey. It gives each of us permission to acknowledge our weaknesses, a crucial step in true growth (professionally or otherwise). Thanks for reminding me, once again, why your blog is always one of the first I read. =)

  4. Thanks for sharing. It’s very moving to know that you feel this way, because sometimes I talk to people or read their blogs and I feel like they’ve got it all figured out, and their reflections are lacking in describing the process it takes to get there. Your reflection acknowledges that work-in-progress is okay. I think we have to be patient with ourselves, the way we wish to be patient with our kids. I can only hope that each year I get a little bit better, soft skills or hard skills.

  5. I’m with you… I love to teach, I care about my students, and even with all the social skills my mother tried to teach me, I am pretty pitiful when it comes to soft skills. I like your upfront, beginning of the year ‘contract’ with the students, that you expect them to do these things and act this way, and they can expect you to do the same. Can I steal that and use it in my classes?

  6. This is a really thoughtful post that reminded me of things I do well but need to do more often, and things I should start doing.

    The 5 bullet points in your course expectations would be a good set of rules for teachers as well as students.

    It made me think that I always expect my kids to be interested (and not necessarily in maths, in them, the world in general… I’ve blogged myself recently about this), but that didn’t really happen until I showed them that I was too – and that came from ME coming to class prepared, ME doing my ‘homework’, ME not being afraid to ask questions etc.

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