Last month we blogged about the latest NWEA-Gallup study, which surveys parents, teachers, and administrators and their views on assessment and education. One key finding this year was that 82% of parents, 83% of teachers, and 83% of principals all say that it is equally important to assess both academic and non-academic skills, like teamwork and critical thinking.
This got us thinking about what our regular blog contributor and teacher Natalie DiFusco-Funk had to say about non-academic skills. (If you’re new to our blog, Natalie is a mom, wife, fifth-grade teacher, Responsive Classroom consulting teacher, and the 2016 Virginia State Teacher of the Year.) As State Teacher of the Year, her platform was actually to raise awareness about the need to address both academic skills and social emotional skills in our classrooms. We asked her to reflect on the recent study and our blog about it — from a teacher’s point of view.
In the blog post, our CEO Chris Minnich wrote, “The truth is – our kids need both academic and non-academic skills to succeed.” As a teacher, what is your view?
First, I would like to throw something out there, hopefully without offending anyone! (Which is never a good way to start a conversation…. but bear with me.) The terms “soft” skills and “non-academic” skills are kind of a thorn in my side. The idea that these skills are soft, or “non” anything, is one of the reasons I focused on it as my platform for State Teacher of the Year.
During that year, I framed all opportunities to speak to various stakeholders and teachers around this quote from Frederick Douglass: “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” #truth. Success in life, both personally and professionally, relies far more on a person’s ability to communicate, collaborate, problem solve, negotiate, and display empathy (all which are considered “soft” skills) than it does on most academic skills. When I think about the connection between the two, academic and “soft” skills, I see academic skills as an opportunity, or an avenue, for developing the ever important “soft” skills.
I can see you have strong feelings about language! Is there a better way to describe these skills?
I am going to have to say that the term “social emotional” encompasses the essence of these skills, so “social-emotional skills.” I don’t know who coined the term, but it is one we use in my work with Center for Responsive Schools. Together the terms social and emotional include all of those subskills I mentioned that are needed to be successful in school and in life.
How do you emphasize social-emotional skills in the classroom?
I love quotes — mostly because I believe that everything I know is because someone far wiser than me helped me to stop and think. So I’m going to use another quote to help answer this question. This one comes from the Facebook group Proactive Coaching: “Leadership is not about being the best. Leadership is about making everyone else better.”
Now, you may be thinking… What does leadership have to do with emphasizing those social-emotional skills in the classroom? Well, as a teacher, I have the opportunity, and the challenge, to be a leader for my students. By consistently modeling what it looks like to effectively communicate, collaborate with kindness, problem solve without giving up, negotiate while remaining friends, and display empathy for those that are hurting, I am emphasizing those social-emotional skills. In short, teachers can lead by example.
Any final thoughts or advice for teachers or parents when it comes to social-emotional skills?
There are many things we can do to help address social-emotional skills, but I want to leave you with one bit of advice — and a book recommendation. How we speak to children is one major way we can help develop these skills. In the Responsive Classroom world, we refer to this as Teacher Language. I highly recommend the book The Power of Our Words by Paula Denton, EdD. It has concrete ideas for how we can use our language, a tool that is ALWAYS with us, to develop students’ social-emotional skills and cultivate intrinsically motivated learners.
Regular readers of my blog know that I have a four-year-old son, so this topic is not only a professional one for me, but also personal. I want to bring us back to my first quote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I spend my day trying to live out this quote with my students, and spend my evenings trying to live it out with my son. For those other teacher-parents out there, I see you, and I know you are exhausted. “Building” other people, is not easy work. In fact, it is literally exhausting (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, sometimes emotionally, often all of the above). So as parent and a teacher, I thank you for recognizing that our job of “building” children encompasses so much more than academics, and I’m grateful that we’re having conversations about all these “non-academic” skills.