Soft skills for me includes every interaction you have with your students. How you choose to phrase and deliver a question, correction, or request to your class as a whole or to an individual student can have a huge impact. In some ways, I feel as though soft skills is one of my strengths.
Last week I overheard one student calling out another student for his horrible handwriting. It was so bad that he couldn't even read it himself. I calmly went over and mentioned how when I'm in a rush my handwriting can get pretty bad too. One way I overcame that in school was to review my notes that night to make sure everything made sense while the material was still fresh in my head. If I couldn't read something and figure out what it was based on the context within the notes I wrote, I could go in for help the next day.
The next day that student came to my Cav Morning (a morning study hall where students have a choice of what class to visit) having already started the homework and asked very specific and high level questions about the issues he was having with the material. I'm not sure I can articulate how big of a deal this is. This is a student who has not only struggled all year, but has embraced being "that student" who slacks off and just does enough to get by. This is a class in which I have pleaded with all year to start the homework the night it is assigned instead of waiting over 24 hours to return to the new material from that class (we have block scheduling).
I believe this interaction and result shows how telling students to do something is not enough. I have told students over and over what good study skills look like. For this student, it didn't click until I was able to create a personal moment with him. Instead of a lecture on what he should be doing, I made myself vulnerable by sharing my own struggles and the strategies I use to deal with those struggles. As teachers we have to seek out those opportunities.
Another small thing I consider a soft skill is something I picked up during my student teaching. I try to ask "Does this make sense?" instead of "Are there any questions?" I'm not sure how much difference this makes but I like how it allows students to simply say no or even just shake their heads to keep our conversations going. They don't have to formulate an entire question or get embarrassed by speaking up in front of everyone. It also creates a culture where we aren't focused on the answer. I'm not asking if students got the correct answer. I'm asking if students understand where that answer came from.
When a student does ask a question, I make a point of praising that student. A simple "Thanks for asking that question" or "That is a really great perspective to think about" goes a long way to encourage more questions. I like to point out that student questions help me become a better teacher. I share with students how they help me focus and adjust my teaching. I also like to point out that questions show me that you are trying to make sense of the material. You aren't just copying down information to memorize. These small comments can help build up a safe and productive classroom environment over time.
There are other soft skills that I really have to work at though and that's why I appreciated Sam Shah's honesty in his post Not all of us have soft skills. I don't like talking about myself and usually won't do it unless prompted so it can be difficult for me to quickly form the necessary relationships with my students. Sara Van Der Wer's post on name tents inspired me to try something similar this year. It made a huge difference in how quickly I gained buy-in from my students. I plan to use it again next year but spread it out over the first month of school.
Starting this calendar year I have also challenged myself to be more available and present for my students in the morning. If I don't have any students asking me questions during our aforementioned Cav Monrning I tend to use that time to plan lessons or grade. From now on, I will put my work aside and come out from behind my desk. I do not want to isolate myself from my students during this time. It's easy to get caught up with all the planning, grading, and other administrative tasks in teaching but those things will get done. I need to prioritize taking advantage of this great opportunity to have casual conversations with my students and strengthen those relationships.
---Side note: I'm going to continue to throw some love to Sam Shah as I highly recommend you read his recent post on Girls and Math. It's a very timely post with the release of Hidden Figures and I felt as though I could really relate to a lot of what he had to say. It has motivated me to try and organize either a viewing of the movie or reading of the book with my students.