Finding a Place for the “Soft Skills”

The “hard skills”.  Math, Language…the Sciences.  These are the things we teach our students, the things they “must” know to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate.  But what about the “soft skills”?  Compassion, perseverance, teamwork, confidence and other social-emotional skills; these are crucial to their success, not only in the long term, but in the short term (to get to university, to pass the test, to graduate!)  

Time.  Time is extremely valuable.  With only about 60-65 thousand minutes in the school year it feels like a bit of an indulgence (perhaps some would say a waste) to take class time to teach things that aren’t actually “on the test” or “in the book”.  I’m willing to challenge that theory though, I believe it is a valuable use of time to ensure that our students receive a balanced education that includes both “hard” and “soft” skills.  The imbalance, one without the other, will lead to imbalanced students who find success in the “hard”, academic skills as difficult.  

If you can take 5-10 minutes now to save you hours later, wouldn’t that be a time investment worth making?  That’s what I’m proposing.  Investing some time to teach students these “soft skills” within the context of your classroom will lead to payoffs down the line.  Less anxious students, organized teenagers, compassionate young adults, and “gritty” learners.  These are the results of teaching and learning the “soft skills”, these should be goals in all classrooms.  

Here are a few areas of focus that will pay dividends for you, should you invest the time:

Start with a Goal:  All of our students have set goals and will revisit these goals in the second semester.  But, how easy is it for these young minds to set their goal and forget it for four months?  Pretty easy.  Take a couple minutes to have students set a goal at the beginning of each class and write it down.  This goal should only be for the next hour or so, just until your class is over.  At the end of class, allow time for students to stop and reflect (and maybe share) on whether they achieved their goal.  I’d recommend having students write a goal on one side of a notecard, then reflecting on the back side.  You can collect these and gain valuable insight, while also holding kids accountable to the process.  

These goals might look like:  “I want to clarify my understanding of the Pythagorean Theorem.”  “Today I will help my classmate practice their scales on the saxophone.”  “Today I will receive feedback on my essay from two peers and my teacher.”

Organize (papers, thinking, lives!):  How do your students organize for your class…is it working?  Many of us use Edmodo.  It’s a great tool for some elements of our classes but does this tool work for everything or just parts of what you’re trying to accomplish.  Would your students benefit from a different organizational system for your class?  What about student thinking?  Graphic organizers, anchor posters, word walls…all of these things are easy and benefit all learners.  How can you help your students get organized?

Mindfulness:  A huge trend in education these days, if you have a lot of Facebook teacher friends you’ve surely at least seen something about Mindfulness.  It can help adolescents more easily navigate the craziness of growing up.  Building skill sets in concentration and impulse control, cultivating empathy and generally helping students become more mindful will all lead to healthier students.  So what is “mindfulness”?  The short explanation is: purposeful and non judgmental awareness of the present, being in the now.  The second part here is key.  Especially with our teens.  They need to understand that they are not constantly being judged, that taking risks and making mistakes is not only okay but expected.  Anxiety is about the future, our worries about all the things that could go wrong if something happens.  Being mindful means that you’re in the moment, you’re in the present and aware.  Mindfulness meditation exercises help focus the mind on the present and get kids ready for the task at hand.

It doesn’t take much, 5 minutes at the beginning of class is all it takes.  Give it a try for yourself first, then give it a try with your students.  I think you’ll enjoy it in both contexts.

Try this basic mindfulness meditation (only 5 minutes).

Then, investigate HeadSpace a little bit.  They have a free trial that is worth the effort and if you see the value there are other options.  Beyond HeadSpace there are lots of other options, if you’re keen let me know and I can share.  

Trying these strategies with your kids is a time investment worth making.  Budget yourself 5-10 minutes over the next few classes to give them a try, you won’t regret it!

[Update] This article was shared with me today.  It’s a great piece from the Wall Street Journal called What Teens Need Most From Their Parents.  It’s all about the soft skills and how tweens/teens develop through the years.  A great read for parents and educators alike!

90% Awesome, 10% Room to Grow

I read an interview recently with author Ken Tencer, he’s co-authored a book about innovating for small business owners. I took some of the ideas that he had for business and tried to apply some of the thinking to our school.

Tencer introduces what he calls the “90% Rule” which he explains as really more of a philosophy than a rule.  Basically it works like this:  You celebrate the amazing stuff you’re doing in your company (or school in our case) which he says is about 90% of what a successful company does.  Then you look at the other 10%, the room for growth, and think about opportunities for the next big thing – the idea that will allow your company to excel further.

We do a pretty good job of celebrating our awesomeness around here, we are at least 90% awesome!!  I also believe that many of us do a good job of thinking about our 10%, the room to grow.  Through the conversations I regularly have with teachers in mini-observation follow ups, in the courtyard at break, or even around the lunch table, I know that many of us are focused on growing and becoming better teachers.  I want to encourage each and everyone of you to continue to grow and pursue excellence.

What about that big idea, that home run, the discovery or growth that can excel you to the next level?  You all set a goal at the beginning of the year.  I want you to think back to that goal.  It should’ve been something that you saw as a game-changing area for growth.  Meaning, if you could grow in that target area then your students would greatly benefit from your growth.

Now think…when was the last time you stopped and thought about that goal?  When was the last time you intentionally altered your instruction with that goal in mind?  When was the last time you sat down and read some professional writing about your specific target area?

My hope today, as we round the corner into March and the upcoming 4th quarter, is that you revisit your goal(s).  Think about why you chose that goal in the beginning of the year.  Once you’ve done that, set a short-term target for growth.  Perhaps that means reading something professionally (just one article a week would be a great start).  Maybe it means trying one new strategy every unit or lesson.  Whatever you decide, make it realistic and manageable.  Give yourself a real chance to finish the year strong and perhaps discover that game-changing idea that can launch you to the next level.

Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves and each other!!   Hang in there…the warm weather is coming soon 🙂