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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