Teaching Soft Skills: 3 Students Break It Down

by Sandy Merz

Quick, Harry Wong style: What’s your go-to method for teaching the so-called “soft” skills like grit, empathy, collaboration, perseverance, communication, ethics, and self management?

3, 2, 1, 0 … still thinking? Then, as the teaching guru would say, you don’t have a go-to method.

Maybe you’re asking yourself if it matters. Did they even mention soft skills in your pre-service program? Or maybe you’re pushing back, saying you’re under too much pressure, given all the other demands placed on new teachers at the dawn of their careers.

But mastering soft skills does matter. As a veteran math and engineer teacher, I’d argue that a student proficient in the soft skills — but who struggles academically — is better prepared for the next step than his or her straight-A peers who lack skills like self-management or grit.

High-functioning classes are built on a foundation of trust.

Let’s put it another way: If soft skills weren’t mentioned when you were preparing to become a teacher, their absence in your teaching will certainly be mentioned by whomever works with your students after you.

But don’t take just my word for it. I recently heard an Intel engineer say that when his company evaluates job candidates, the first two or three interviews focus on how candidates demonstrate their mastery of soft skills. One of Australia’s leading authors on problems faced by teenagers started out as a high school teacher. She cultivated soft skills in herself and students as part of the learning process.

Two recent high school graduates, whom you’ll meet later in this piece, confirm this point. Seth, who’s looking for part-time work, gets asked at every job interview to explain what he knows about teamwork. And Amy’s Uncle Marty is having a heck of a time finding a job because, despite being highly qualified in his field, he lacks interpersonal communications skills.

The trouble is that soft skills don’t lend themselves to direct instruction. Picture yourself writing this objective: “When working on group projects, students will correctly demonstrate empathy on 75% of the opportunities that arise.” How in the world could you ever measure that?

Fortunately, soft skills can be organically embedded into your day-to-day contact with students. Furthermore, because they are relevant to electives, clubs, and sports, as well as core subjects, soft skills are the content that transfers across the entire curriculum.

Asking students what students need

In my own classes, I notice that students develop their soft skills when I do two things right: 1) Give them authentic choices about how they’re going to learn and be assessed; and 2) Provide a classroom where trust, initiative, and taking risks are encouraged.

But my experience only goes so far. So I decided to ask some students what they thought about soft skills and what teachers did right and wrong when it came to teaching them. Let’s meet them:

Seth, my son, and Amy, his girlfriend, graduated from high school in May. Both have learning disabilities in math and language arts, yet they successfully negotiated mainstream classes, passed our state’s standardized tests, and registered for classes at our local community college.

Meanwhile, one of my past students, Marissa, advanced to 9th grade in May. She excelled in my engineering and algebra classes. She’s a quiet leader, but if you watch her carefully, you might find her acting silly with her close friends. She plays sports and the drums and painted a mural for our auditorium.

I spoke with Seth and Amy about the topic of soft skills in person and exchanged several emails with Marissa. The three of them have different academic experiences, but they all referenced the teaching of soft skills across a wide range of classes. I took this as evidence that all teachers can create a soft skills-friendly environment in their classes.

Here are some of their recommendations for what teachers can try (and what they should avoid).
…the first two or three interviews focus on how candidates demonstrate their mastery of soft skills.

Try: Pushing your students
Amy found herself most challenged by teachers who purposefully taught to the top performers. One teacher would have struggling students go to the board and try to explain the material. When they made a mistake, the class would help out. “It sucks when it’s you,” she says, “but you pay attention when everyone helps!”

She remembers one project in particular that challenged her. Students had to simulate people’s futures based on the probability of specific life events. She pushed herself to do well because the project led her to think about her future in practical terms.

Marissa pointed out that pushing students starts by engaging them — getting students focused the moment they enter the classroom — and should be a teacher’s first priority. She says, “If the majority isn’t paying attention, chances are the majority would fail what you’re teaching.”

She also advises teachers to model perseverance by not giving up on students, even when they are frustrated by difficult material. Teachers can help students learn to work through these difficulties instead of moving on too soon or just giving them the answers: “You need to step back and explain and ask students questions to make sure they understand how to do it themselves. If they don’t understand the basics of how to do it, later problems will be more difficult, causing stress, confusion, and the chance of them trying less,” she says. She is a strong advocate of holding students responsible by cold calling on them during class.

Seth summarizes the need to push students concisely: “Don’t baby them, and don’t dumb down the work.”

Although teachers should push students to work hard, teachers also need to get off the subject sometimes. Consider following some spontaneous paths to help clear the brain and enable students to breathe, renew, and keep up the intensity.

Try: Supporting students by helping them find their own way
Seth and Amy both described the importance of teachers cultivating a supportive climate while pushing students to reach their potential. For example, teachers should get to know their students and collaborate with them. (To get to know students early, I use seating challenges and utilize an exercise to have them introduce themselves with clay.)

Teachers can help students find solutions even if it means showing alternate paths to content mastery. Seth and Amy agreed that, in the best classrooms, learning is intense, but nothing is made impossible. In this kind of environment, students are future-oriented and get over failures and conflicts quickly.

But Marissa cautions that insisting that struggling students automatically come to teachers for extra help can be counterproductive. Rather, make yourself available outside of class and let students seek assistance on their own terms.

She points out: Teaching is hard because students don’t all learn the same. But students quickly observe which teachers will (and won’t) give up on them.

One last takeaway from Marissa, regarding support — those silly memory tricks really help a lot, including letting students use a reference sheets on tests!

Try: Being personal
High-functioning classes are built on a foundation of trust. That begins by believing in your students, being honest, and showing your emotions, particularly in tough situations. Soft skills bloom in classes that have a family atmosphere where, as Seth says, “The teacher builds bonds and attends to the whole person.” Note his revealing choice of words: person, not student.

Amy adds that, in these kinds of classes, teachers are like parents who have cut the apron strings. They hold students responsible but keep things in perspective.

Seth adds: Even though they’re old, teachers should try to relate to kids.

Avoid these pitfalls

According to Amy, Seth, and Marissa, teachers kill a soft skills-friendly climate when they are unprepared, unfriendly, inconsistent, condescending, insulting, and stress the wrong things.

All three were contemptuous of childish punishments and putdowns like automatic detention for not finishing work. Amy was once told that she “cuts like a baby.” Another teacher would denigrate kids who were frustrated with the higher standards of the Common Core. Instead of helping students, he would say, “Hey, that’s the Common Core, get used to it.”

Marissa pointed out that teachers should avoid saying assignments are easy; that’s an insult to students who might not think so.

The three also described their frustration with teachers who use scare tactics. For example, 8th-grade teachers (like me) always say high school teachers would never accept work without a name on it or give students a pencil if they forgot one. But, Seth and Amy pointed out that it was common for high school teachers to lend supplies and simply hold up a nameless paper and ask whose it was.

To this point, Amy spoke eloquently: “Teachers should prepare us for the next step, not scare us for the next step.”

Marissa added pet peeves like boredom, rushing through material, and using too many packets. She noted that kids engage less when there is too much reading and discussing.

Putting it into practice

Yesterday, I handed back my students’ first graded assignment. I found myself gearing up for my “How are you going to make it in high school if you don’t even put your name on papers?” speech.

But then I remembered Seth, Amy, and Marissa’s advice: Prepare them, don’t scare them. Instead, I asked the class if they’d ever heard of soft skills. They said no. So I took some time to describe them and share what the Intel engineer had said. We discussed that collaboration in my class includes details like spelling out your first and last names. By treating my students as mature individuals, I was able to help them understand some of my class expectations.

For the first time this year, the collective body language of the class signaled full attention. They were hearing something new that made a lot of sense. I’d speculate that more than a few were thinking, “Here’s something I can master and use, no matter how tough the material.”

So, we’re back to where we started. What go-to methods are you thinking about using to create a soft skills-rich environment in your classroom?

August “Sandy” Merz III is a National Board Certified Teacher who teaches engineering and algebra to middle school students in Tucson, Ariz. As a 2013-2014 teacherpreneur, he divided his time between teaching and connecting teacher-leadership communities. His role was supported by his district and two nonprofits: the AZK12 Center and the Center for Teaching Quality, where he is also a member of the Collaboratory.