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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Thanking my teachers–long over-due

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I want to give a shout out to the following people from my past. I credit my core as a teacher to them.

Mr. Wolfram was my math teacher all through high school. You read that correctly. I had the same math teacher for four years. Fortunately, he was amazing. He was so amazing that all of my kids from the past seven years (since I’ve been teaching high school courses to middle schoolers) know the name of my high school math teacher from 36 years ago. From Mr. Wolfram I learned that you earn As and get Bs. Even though you place for a cash prize in a state geometry test, that was not good enough to get put on his Math Hall of Fame wall. That was all good to know before college. I wasn’t quite the big fish I thought I was. Math was fun. Math was cool. Math was worth the effort.

Paul Humke—Humke was a visiting professor at St. Olaf my first semester of college, Fall 1980. He was a great teacher. I got a B, which was generous, but he was the first teacher I ever really talked to. He knew I was having a tough time—so lonely; so poor at a rich-man’s school; so just not a good fit. He told me to quit studying during Chapel time and actually go to Chapel. What a concept! He was also the one to tell me that I could actually major in math. He was a difference maker. He also wore sandals and socks—in the dead of winter in Minnesota. So cool.

Dr. Pilgrim was my adviser when I transferred to Luther. He never got over the fact that he misspelled—dang, some word that stared with an i—all throughout his dissertation. (I actually know that he is still living in Decorah, IA (Luther) as does my aunt. She goes to his nursing home and tells him that I’m finally teaching and other bragging points that my mother feeds her sister.) Dr. Pilgrim set up a tutoring opportunity my junior year with a high school geometry student. (I think it was the daughter of his dentist.) I had no idea what I was doing, but I got paid for three hours each Saturday morning. I spent way too much time getting ready for Heidi (my student) and loved every minute. But I was a math-econ major and had no sights on teaching. You could only get el-ed at Luther so I never even considered teaching. But Dr. Pilgrim knew—even though it took 25+ years for me to figure it out.

Dr. Triton was my senior paper advisor at Luther. He was the one professor that scared the daylights out of me. My mother somehow convinced me that he needed to be my senior paper advisor. Seriously mom? It was good though. He only looked scary. Great guy. Gentle giant. That experience taught me to be not afraid of those who first appear scary. That was not the point of my paper, but it was the take-away. (1984)

Fast forward to 2006…Alex K. This was a high school kid that was the bother of one of my daughter’s friends. He needed help with his algebra 2. It was a win-win. I helped him and he helped me figure out what I was really supposed to be doing. I. Loved. It. Done—I enrolled at UNCG and got my masters in middle grades math. Why middle grades? I fall in love with my son and his friends when they were in middle school. So cool—weird but cool emerging individuals.

And my mom. Dr. Baumgardner. My biggest fan. Ever and always. She never pushed me into anything and always fully supported me in everything I have ever done. It’s not until I am much older that I realize how special that really is. Uh Oh—I’m feeling a mother’s day post coming on. Don’t fret. I probably won’t. I’d cry so much I’d dehydrate.

Thank you teachers. That’s not enough, but that’s all I got. Virtual love, hugs, kisses and sincere public appreciation to you all.

BTW, this post was inspired by Meg Craig—thank you Meg @mathymeg07.

 

 

Beyond “Why?”

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Annoying Kid

I was that annoying kid who always asked questions. Constantly. I especially asked “why” when I was told to do or not do something. If I received an answer that didn’t make sense or that I didn’t agree with, I fell short of compliance. Actually, that still holds today—a point that makes both my husband and principal twitch at times. But that’s a different kind of “why”. A teacher “why” needs to engender deeper thought. A teacher “why” needs to inspire, but that word is not all that inspirational.

In one of my last graduate classes (more than ten years ago) I read an article entitled, “Beyond ‘I like the way you…’.” It was about giving students sincere, positive, specific feedback. When I think about questioning, I envision an article entitled “Beyond, ‘Why?’” that needs to be written. “Tell me more” does no more than “why,” sooooo, I have made a list of some questions and comments I try to make to students as a place to start.

  • How can you check that?
  • Is there another way?
  • Try to find a counter example.
  • Discuss your method with your shoulder partner.
  • Make the abstract concrete and see what you notice.
  • Listen in on the conversation that group is having over there.
  • Think about what you did yesterday. What are the similarities and differences here?

To help improve my why-type questioning, I am going to try to keep a tally of my questioning next week and focus on replacing “why” with a better response. For each “why”, I will put one tally. For each why-replacement, I will put a star. My students deserve better so I am going to work toward being a better why-replacer.