Teaching the Soft Skills: Three Students Break It DownPhoto: Robert Churchill/iStock/Thinkstock

Soft skills might be more important than academic skills, but how do you teach them? Follow this practical advice.

Quick, Harry Wong style: What’s your go-to method for teaching the so-called “soft” skills like grit, empathy, collaboration, perseverance, communication, ethics, and self-management?

3, 2, 1, 0 … still thinking? Then, as the teaching guru would say, you don’t have a go-to method.

Maybe you’re asking yourself if it matters. Did they even mention soft skills in your preservice program? Or maybe you’re pushing back, saying you’re under too much pressure, given all the other demands placed on new teachers at the dawn of their careers.

But mastering soft skills does matter. As a veteran math and engineer teacher, I’d argue that a student proficient in the soft skills — but who struggles academically — is better prepared for the next step than his or her straight-A peers who lack skills like self-management or grit.

High-functioning classes are built on a foundation of trust.

Let’s put it another way: If soft skills weren’t mentioned when you were preparing to become a teacher, their absence in your teaching will certainly be mentioned by whomever works with your students after you.

But don’t take just my word for it. I recently heard an Intel engineer say that when his company evaluates job candidates, the first two or three interviews focus on how candidates demonstrate their mastery of soft skills.

Two recent high school graduates, whom you’ll meet later in this piece, confirm this point. Seth, who’s looking for part-time work, gets asked at every job interview to explain what he knows about teamwork. And Amy’s Uncle Marty is having a heck of a time finding a job because, despite being highly qualified in his field, he lacks interpersonal communications skills.

The trouble is that soft skills don’t lend themselves to direct instruction. Picture yourself writing this objective: “When working on group projects, students will correctly demonstrate empathy on 75% of the opportunities that arise.” How in the world could you ever measure that?

Fortunately, soft skills can be organically embedded into your day-to-day contact with students. Furthermore, because they are relevant to electives, clubs, and sports, as well as core subjects, soft skills are the content that transfers across the entire curriculum.

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