Today I am thinking about hard and soft skills in teaching and how I think we’re headed down a very slippery slope.
Let me explain…
I have done professional development and coaching of teachers (and their coaches and leaders) for a decade and a half. I have seen a lot. Correction: I have seen it ALL!
Most of my work is with some of the most struggling schools in each state in the U.S. The districts and schools come to me because they aren’t getting the results they want, despite a lot of energy and time spent on the job. Sometimes people are under-motivated, feeling the results of really bad leadership or they’re just not a good fit for the hard job of being a teacher.
But most of the time, they need help because they can’t pull themselves off of the trajectory toward failure. They need a lifeline or help or whatever you want to call it.
When I go to schools and I suggest that they try something (like simplifying their morning routine or sorting their kids for reading instruction), the first question they ask is: Okay, how do I do that?
That question right there (How do I do that?) is a question that begs for a HARD SKILL response. In other words, most teachers are asking to be taught a SKILL to help them improve their performance or that of their students. Hands down, teachers want to learn to do things. They don’t just want to talk about them, feel good about talking about them or ruminate on big ideas.
They want answers and solutions. They’re looking for hard skills that will help them get better results.
Here’s where the slippery slope comes in.
I speak at a lot of conferences and lately I’ve noticed a bunch of sessions (maybe half?) on the conference dockets are about what I would consider SOFT SKILLS. I see sessions on equity in the classroom, building resilient kids…or my latest favorite buzz word (gag!) student efficacy. First off (and I promise I won’t go off on a tangent about this!), I don’t even know what those words really mean. Or more specifically, these words mean things that encompass so many things that they don’t have much meaning at all!
Do I believe in building resilient kids? Of course I do!
Do I believe in equity in the classroom? Of course I do!
Do I believe in student efficacy (feeling like they can get the job done)? Of course I do!
But…I don’t believe that resiliency, equity and efficacy (soft skills) are won through soft skill work of the teacher. I think they’re won through the teacher’s hard skills…the hard skills that the teacher uses each day that ensures that kids master the most important content. (A few examples of hard skills off the top of my head: how to set up a flawless management system, how to redirect students off-task, how to lesson plan for a killer lesson, how to teach vocabulary so that students internalize the words, how to break down your student data and make smart decisions. You get the idea.)
So, I actually think we do a disservice to teachers by getting them pumped up about the soft skills stuff without arming them with the hard skills. After all, when the conference session is done or the professional development session is over, they are left with this: either they have the skill to do what they need to do tomorrow, or they don’t.
In my 15+ years of doing this work, I have never had a teacher ask me, “How do I build resiliency in my students?” or “How do I create a spirit of equity in my classroom?” Nope. The questions are much more practical and skill-focused. Teachers want to get BETTER at BEING great teachers…not just talking about being better teaches.
There is no amount of pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session that is going to cover for a lack of skill.
Actually, let’s flip that: No pump up, big picture vision or fancy worded conference session can outshine a teacher with excellently honed hard teaching skills.
The sooner we admit that excellent teaching comes down to the teacher being really good at certain things, then the REAL party starts. Until then, we’re hunting and pecking for superficial fix-its.
And we are better than that.