Soft Skills. According to the Collins English dictionary these are “desirable qualities for certain forms of employment that do not depend on acquired knowledge: they include common sense, the ability to deal with people, and a positive flexible attitude” I like this definition. Mostly because I can say I at least have two soft skills…just not the social people one. Reading Sam Shah’s post from the Virtual Conference made me think a lot about the idea of what soft skills, especially regarding connecting with students looks like. I agree with him that we have some amazing people in the MTBoS that do powerful work and really connect with students.
I don’t buy that you have to be good at conversation and sweet emails to be that person. My bet is that Sam and his readers are all much better at connecting that they realize and also, that their brand of student connection might reach students that the more obvious outward teachers don’t. This might be partially a biased opinion. I am not great at social skills. I am awkward around people. I am terrible at talking about feelings. I am not a ‘friend’ to the students in the way many of the teachers at my school seem to be. I am definitely not bubbly. I don’t understand even 5% of the references students and adults make to things I should probably know. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a connection with students. My students know that I care about them, or at least that I respect them and have high expectations for them. I wouldn’t hold those if I didn’t care. I tell them this. And often students who are also feel different feel better knowing that they can count on me without going through the exhausting social protocols.
This is not at all to say that we don’t need those other amazing social people. We do. Very much. But we also need students to see that there are lots of versions of successful people. I don’t know anything about popular music. I am a lover of musical theater and football (but not the right team for my area). I love Ella Fitzgerald and Warren Zevon and probably can’t name a single person on the top 10 music lists (are those even a things anymore?) I can’t walk without running into things. I wear crazy socks. I didn’t have texting until this summer. I still don’t use it.
I think my main ‘soft skills’ tool: I don’t hide things from my students about what I do or why I do it. My teacher moves aren’t secret. We talk about them. We will take a minute or two to give a quick brain explanation. I also let them know every year that they hold a position of power in the class. It is their class, not mine. We talk about what that means. It’s not a free pass to go crazy. But at the end of the year, the only person who actually feels the consequence of no credit or bad grades is the student. My ego might be bruised, but it doesn’t affect my life the same way it affects them. They have the most to lose and gain, so they should have some say in the classroom. I am flexible and if things aren’t working them tell me and we change adapt. That being said, if there is a reason for my choice and I’m not willing to change it, I tell them what the reason is and why.
Also, the more we talk about the science of learning and what math can be, the more I am able to let go and actually be more for my students. I still won’t be the first person they run to with news of weekend plans (and that’s good by me!!) but they have become a real part of my life and I theirs. I student will notice that I’m not myself that day and check in. I don’t hide my flaws and own up when I screw up. I will adapt and be understanding when a student is late or absent or is having a tough day. I am committed to actively remembering that their brains work differently than mine and that they are not adults. We sometimes talk as math teachers about trying to remember that things that seem obvious to us are not obvious to students. The same goes for their reactions and behaviors. Again, this is not a free pass but an understanding that we have to enable safe practice of anything we expect of students.
I am still struggling in the how much to connect mode. In my first year at my current school, we lost six students in six months. And then too many more continuing over the summer. When I walk from school to pick up my daughter from preschool, I see some of my homeless students standing in lines waiting to see if there is food or shelter. I get background stories on my students that are deeply painful. There is only so much I can do. And math is not always the most important thing. But, I can do what I can to use math class as a way to make them feel important, heard, and also have a bit of lighthearted yet important learning. They are still kids.
Also: Find others playing along at: https://exploremtbos.wordpress.com/ or on twitter.
 Collins English Dictionary: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/soft-skills