The Softest Soft Skill of Them All

So, I’ve spent the past week thinking about what on Earth soft skills are to me and what soft skills I have that I bring to the classroom daily. Truth be told, some would say I don’t have any soft skills because they see me as a hard-ass—always demanding more and expecting perfection. Some don’t really know me. Those that do know me know that I have the softest soft skill of all.
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At our school, we have a monthly event where students are nominated by their teachers to be recognized as Spotlight Students. My team takes these nominations very seriously and we each make impassioned pleas for our nominees. I get so emotionally invested in the recognitions for my students that I usually can’t even tell the student she is nominated without crying. Crazy right? A kid is great and I can’t even tell him without breaking down.

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That’s how students know that they each mean more to me than I could ever say out loud. I am so proud of how they carry themselves as compassionate young adults. They care for one another. They trust one another. They are courageous, emerging individuals. They are becoming really great people right before my eyes each and every day and I have the best seat in the house.

Friday we found out that our beloved school counselor, Crystal, died. She had been ill, but she was at school more often than not. She never complained. She was the bravest person I have ever met and she will be deeply missed.

I taught Crystal’s son, Zack, three or four years ago. He was a typical 8th grader and she would say to me, “What am I going to do with him? Will he ever grow up? He’s so sweet, but he’s just a mess.” I assured her that he would grow up to be a wonderful young man and that she needn’t worry. This fall I asked her how Zack was doing in high school. She told me I was right–was well-rounded, well-adjusted and responsible. I smiled and nodded. Then I went to my room and cried.

Shortly after I first found out Crystal had breast cancer, I saw Zack waiting for her in the parking lot after school. I would walk by their car and wave and smile at Zack wanting to speak to him, but being too afraid of my own emotions. I would then go to my car and cry. After a couple of weeks of this, I finally stopped at the car and spoke to Zack. He was happy as usual. I told him how much I thought of his mother and how incredibly brave and strong she was. He just shrugged as if to say, ‘Eh, that’s my mom. She’s one tough cookie.’

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So, do I really have a soft skill that I share with students and does it make a difference? I say yes and here is how I know. Last year at school something was missing. There was little joy. My homeroom was great but the rest of the day was a challenge for sure. I didn’t love my kids, but rather just tried not to hate them. Oh, I started out with good intensions, but it was just a rare group of kids who made it their life’s’ work to make school miserable. At least that is what it felt like. Eventually I showed no emotion for if I was excited and happy, they couldn’t handle it. If I was upset, they went in for the kill. I just became numb, as far as students knew. Outside of school my heart was broken. I was confounded at the thought of kids being constantly disrespectful and mean. I couldn’t invest my heart because I couldn’t have it trampled on again and again. I worked hard on the academics, but that was all. I had to force myself to show up on the last day of school for the awards ceremony. I seriously did not want to be there.

This year is back to normal or even better than normal. You see, kids need love, even from me, and I need to give love. Loving kids, warts and all, is my strongest soft skill. That word “love” is something I thought was totally inappropriate to describe a teacher/student relationship before this year. It is what was going on each year, I just could never admit it until now. It took the lack of love last year to convince me of that. I’m never going back, even when it hurts.

Crystal taught me how to love the unlovable. There are kids that spent a great deal of time in her office. Hers was a safe space for all kids and adults for that matter. Crystal’s greatest gift to me was helping me develop my softest skill and I am forever greatful.

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Completing the square completes me

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My favorite topic to teach is completing the square. Weird, right? I just love it. I start by having kids solve radical expressions. I say “what cha gonna do?” and then say “square both sides!” We then move to solving equations where we need to square root both sides and I catch them in the chant! “what cha gonna do?” “Square both sides.” Really? Then they think. And then they think some more. “Oooo,” they say. X squared = plus or minus the square root of x. Major deal of course. So now the chant becomes, “what cha gonna do?’ and they say, “square root both sides.” Many forget the plus and minus no matter how many we do it. I do this before solving quadratics, which may be unconventional, but it works.

We solve equations with a squared term, a linear term and a constant or two and we discover how to complete the square in order to be able to take the square root of both side after some massaging. It’s awesome. It’s magical. It has absolutely nothing to do with quadratics as far as students know. We are merely balancing equations.

Then we do go into quadratics. There is always some smart alec that wants to dive into the quadratic formula. I hate this, but soldier on. They may NOT use the quadratic formula until they can prove it. End of story. We go into vertex form of a quadratic. They dig the structure and can assemble the vertex form of a quadric if they know the vertex and the multiplier. We then look at discovering coming up with a quadratic equation with far less information. We know the structure of vertex form because that is taught in Math 1 (supposedly). Of course the structure is re-taught. But, now we have a reason for knowing how to complete the square. Yeah! It’s so similar to coming up with the slope intercept form of a linear equation. Plug in what you know (what you are given) and chug away. That there must be a perfect square trinomial to make the square root of both side s of the equation is the secret weapon. All must balance. No illegal moves. Taking the multiplier into consideration is a challenge, but we get there.

Because I introduce completing the square multiple times and early, it sticks by the time we prove the quadratic formula. It gets revisited when we do geometry and prove the Pythagorean theorem. The sparks and light bulbs that go off are so fun!

I tell my kids when we first complete the square that this is a skill that could make them a hero some day. When I first started teaching algebra 7 years ago, my daughter was in a college chemistry class. Her class had a problem that looked unsolvable until a student suggested that they complete the square. That student was a hero. I tell my students that some day they too can be a hero with completing the square. They are instructed to notify me the day this happens. Sadly, no notifications so far.

I think that success in teaching completing the square comes from students being exposed to it over a period of time, even before they really need it. If you wait until they need it, the mind is too clogged with other ways to solve quadratics. I tell my kids, too frequently solving a quadratic via the quadratic formula is like taking a barge down a river. Completing the square is a kayak. Have fun! Use it. Be a hero!