Skills not Traits

[This post has its roots in a wonderful professional development sessions led by Matt Kay, SLA founding teacher and author of the upcoming book Loaded Conversations. Buy it when it comes out.]

Think of the kid that frustrates you the most in your classroom or in your school. Maybe it’s the kid who can’t stop calling out or the kid who never lets an opportunity for a snide comment go or the kid who seems to slide into class two minutes after class starts every day. Pick your frustration – there are a lot to go around in our profession.

Now, be honest with yourself.

When you think of that student, do you think of that behavior as a fixed part of that student’s personality? Do you think of them as “lazy” or “mean” or “impulsive” in a way that fixes that trait in your head as something immutable in that student?

If you do, can you change the way you see that?

What if you saw the behavior as a skill the student needs to develop? To wit – let’s look at the three examples:

  • “This student hasn’t learned how participate in a class discussion yet.”
  • “This student hasn’t learned how or why to be kind in school yet.”
  • “This student hasn’t learned the benefits of being in class at the start of the class yet.”

How does that change our lens as teachers? We’ve progressed as a profession such that teachers know that the statement, “This student will never learn X” is no longer something that can be tolerated in our schools. But in many places, we haven’t translated that to the way we think about the soft skills students may need to be successful in academic settings or the kinds dispositions that will help them be the active, vibrant citizens our world needs.

What if we changed our lens so we asked the next questions:

  • “What does this student need to be a responsible member of a class discussion?”
  • “What does this student need to learn how and why to be more kind?”
  • “What do I have to do as a teacher to help this student learn why s/he needs to be in class on time?”

What we teach kids about how they can walk through the world as a full-realized person is as important as the facts and figures they learn in our classes. When we see our students as still very much learning how to walk through the world wisely, we can change our lens on student behavior as something that is not fixed or immutable, but rather as a skill to be learned, and therefore, deeply in our wheelhouse to teach.

And as importantly, when we remember that students are still in process – still learning – it makes it that much easier to forgive and understand those moments that drive us crazy. And, maybe, it allows us to remember that we, too, are in process and that the kids might need to forgive us from time to time too.

 

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