Recently I was in a classroom and I used the word “quantity” when speaking with a student. He said to me, “That’s a big word.” When I replied that at the end of this unit, “quantity” may be a word that he uses, he smiled. I asked another student to explain to me how she figured out a missing value in a diagram. Her reply was “I don’t know how to say it.” I asked her to try anyway, and she did. She got some words out that allowed me to ask questions that helped her to built up her response.

The soft skills of teaching have to be paired with high expectations that students can and will be able to meet the challenges set before them. Soft skills without high expectations doesn’t help students learn. This is what it looked like in my classroom back when I had my own classroom:

- I meet students where they are at in their learning and ask them to move forward in a meaningful way.
- I listen to students to hear what they are thinking and seek to find strength that they can build from and take the “next step” for them to move forward.
- I let them know where we are headed and that they can get there along with the rest of us.

For over twenty years I worked at a junior high school with students that came from backgrounds that many people call disadvantaged, students that were still learning English although they entered our district in kindergarten, students that came from homes where many of their parents don’t have a high school education and their parents work hard at two or three jobs just to pay the bills.

One group of students that intrigued me were the students that entered 7th grade math “knowing” that they were not good at math. One such student, Emmanuel, was a polite, organized young man who had beautiful handwriting. His test scores showed that he had been “below basic” on state tests for multiple years in elementary school. This data got him placed in the lowest math class in our school as he entered 7th grade. He had the sense that he wasn’t good at math. As I came to know Emmanuel I found out that he was very good at solving the 3-D wooden puzzles and the puzzles like the Crazy Turtle Game that I had in my classroom. His visualization skills that allowed him to solve puzzles were phenomenal! Over winter break, Emmanuel took home a puzzle that no one had been able to solve in three years. He returned with it solved.

I learned that Emanuel was a problem solver. Although he was a willing student, memorizing a cookbook’s worth of mathematical procedures wasn’t his strength. Emmanuel helped me learn that I needed to turn problems into puzzles so I asked him to make sense of mathematics with diagrams or drawings. He thrived as a student in my class because I got to know him and found strengths that he could build upon.

Emmanuel is a high school senior this year. I have not seen him since junior high. When he left junior high, his math skills were approaching grade level while his reading skills still lagged behind. In junior high he wanted to be a landscape architect or drafts person. He was just beginning to learn about careers in engineering. Soft skill are about getting to know your students, and helping them meet the goal that you have for them and that they have for themselves.