Friday, 13 January 2017

Soft Skills: The Middle Ground

This post relates to a series on soft skills in (math) teaching, which was initiated by Riley Lark in July 2010, and is extended here as part of the “Explore the Math Twitter Blog O’ Sphere” 2017 initiative. (You can follow those links for more info, and/or read my first post in the 2017 initiative, about a media assignment.)

I decided to run through a number of the prior posts from 2010, to get a better sense of what had already been said. Some of the themes included the ideas of using group roles, connecting with students beyond the subject, making the math fun and approachable... all through skills like trust, caring, being authentic and the usual things you might expect. More specifically, there were analogies given to quicksand and wolverines, there was a call to consider time of day - and then there was a post by Sam Shah.

Sam’s post is entitled “Not all of us have soft skills”. Within it, he talks about “mulligans”, and while I was not sure how a 1980s hairstyle that is long is the back connects to anything, other aspects of the post spoke to me. (I later looked up mulligan, to find it’s actually a stew. Odd. Looking further, it’s apparently also a second chance to perform an action, which explains the otherwise seemingly random mention of sports. Anyway.) Curiously, “Math Mulligans” is also a blog with a recent soft skills post that references Sam’s post too, so, small world.

Anyway, back to that question of soft skills. While, like Sam, I tend to keep some distance and know of awkward pauses, I’m actually going to take a slightly opposing viewpoint here. I’ll be claiming that I do have soft skills - ones which I don’t actively use. Also like Sam, I suspect I’m not alone in this. So, why am I (and others) not using these skills? Let’s look at that first, then I’ll clarify what I meant by “The Middle Ground” in the title. Feel free to skip down to the tip.


The key reason I believe I have soft skills is because I get along with people. Students, colleagues, administration, friends, relatives... I’m pretty sure people don’t actively shun me. That said, I couldn’t tell you why. It might be that I’m a good listener, or I have a certain mindset, or I know the right things to say, or I am (usually) aware of times NOT to let out another pun - or none of that. Hence the first reason I don’t actively use soft skills is because I’m not entirely sure how I’ve managed to have them in the first place.

The second reason for not using soft skills is that some are simply not applicable in a classroom setting. Someone who is really good at giving hugs, for instance, would not be able to avail themselves of that skill with students. (Not without raising issues.) And while I’m not a hug person, when faced with large groups, my observation skills do tend to fail me. Instead, I show as much enthusiasm as I can (is that a skill?), in hopes that it gets shared by the audience, rather than focusing on the individuals. Not always, granted, but it’s something of a default mode. One that requires effort to overcome. Which brings me to the third reason.

Soft skills are physically EXHAUSTING. I say this as someone pretty high on the introvert scale. We’re at “I won’t call you, you call me” levels of socialization here. To the point where, if I am in trouble, I am much more likely to shout “Help!” into the wind, in hopes that someone noticed, than to actually approach an individual. (Note I don’t recommend that, it tends to lead to bottling up issues until the container explodes... but when I’m in trouble, expending additional precious energy on an analysis of who to engage in a civilized conversation? Can feel crippling.) Thing is, once we’re over the inertia, I can carry on a conversation well enough.

The fact that I don’t approach people, I wait for them to approach me, well, that can be an issue in teaching. Consider, if there’s a like-minded student waiting for me to approach them first... we’re in a stalemate. Until something happens to overcome the initial block (an outburst, a failed test, a third party, or otherwise). So, in essence, my soft skills are there, but they are accessed by request, or by routine. It’s rarely a conscious effort. Am I truly alone in that?


Here’s how this connects to a tip. There’s a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode titled “ETHICS”, in which Worf sustains an injury that means he may never walk again. Being a Klingon, he considers his life to be effectively over. That situation leads to Captain Picard saying the following to Dr. Beverly Crusher:

"Beverly, he can't make the journey you're asking of him. You want him to go from contemplating suicide to accepting his condition and living with the disability, but it's too far! The road between covers a lifetime of values, beliefs. He can't do it, Beverly. But perhaps he can come part of the way."

In a similar way, expecting me to jump into a conversation at a party is a bridge too far. It’s about finding that middle ground, the compromise position. Which is something that also applies when one is teaching mathematics. Because if you’re anything like me, you'd have a certain passion for the subject you teach - while students may be on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

When a student says they “hate math” or “can’t do it”, my concern is that love, or even enthusiasm, is too far of a journey. Leading them to shut down. But perhaps they can come part of the way? To that end, I ask the 'haters' to move towards ambivalence. For those who like analogies, know that if you’re in a car with a stuck throttle that’s barrelling down the highway, the answer is not to turn off the engine. With the engine off, the wheel locks up, making the car hard to control. The answer is to shift the car into neutral, thereby maintaining control.

For the student who “hates math”, see if they might accept that it’s useful, or necessary, and that it shouldn’t be hated any more than one might hate spiders. For someone who “can’t do it”, surely “it” isn’t all math; more likely it’s a particular concept, perhaps even a specific problem. Again, find the middle ground, some piece or problem that was possible, and restart from there. Shifting into neutral - it’s a bit like “de-escalation”, or finding common ground. That's all I've got for you.


Okay, I feel I should mention something else which can help (or possibly hinder) with soft skills, that being familiarity. I’ve been fortunate enough to be at the same school for close to ten years now. This means, among other things, I feel more comfortable approaching other teachers for advice. For instance, with a student I have now, whom they previously taught.

And while the students themselves change year after year, word of mouth can spread in the student body. To that end, I seem to have gained a reputation for the math songs I sing, along with the statistics course I teach. So I suspect my classification is akin to “Mostly Harmless”. I’ve even been approached by students to film in my class, and on one occasion, to help with a theatre related issue when the usual teacher was unavailable. It’s the sort of thing that lowers the chances of an entire class turning against me.

Now, does it always work, this "using soft skills more passively while finding middle ground"? Of course not. In fact, I have this tendency to back off towards the middle ground even with very positive things, meaning I’m not one to celebrate victories either. To pull in more Star Trek, I’m a bit like Spock, not really understanding human emotional outbursts, yet somehow I am able to deal with them. I can only hope that’s still the case when I return from my sabbatical.

I think that’s everything, let me know if you have thoughts, or if something was unclear. Thanks for reading, consider coming back again, or checking out my other writing projects!

-My personified math comic last posted “Re: Cycling” on Monday.

-My time travel serial last posted “Timeline Five?” on Friday.

-My “Not Teaching Year” chronicle on this blog continues tomorrow.

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