Breaking Baccalaureate

Why non-academic skills are as important as the traditional academic stuff

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This past spring, I attended a championship story slam with a student I have advised and whom I know well. This student is a gifted writer and a funny, self-deprecating storyteller. I could easily claim that I thought attending the slam might give her insight about a research project I was advising her on. But the truth is that I simply thought she would enjoy the slam and might find an outlet for her own storytelling. The issue of engaging with a student outside of formal class time is, of course, a tricky one these days, especially if the professor is a male and the student a female. I will address the potential pitfalls as well huge opportunities of engaging with students outside of class in another essay.

So there we were the other night — my student and I — sitting in a small club with about 75 people in the audience, at another story slam. This time I had challenged her to sign up to speak, and she agreed as long as I did the same. About an hour into the story slam, my student’s name was called. She smiled and made her way to the front of the stage. I looked on nervously as she told a funny story about her confusion regarding the men she likes. Her voice was strong and confident, and the audience laughed at the right moments.

When she made her way back to her seat, I stood and clapped and congratulated her. “You were great,” I said. She sat down and seemed pleased, still riding the tail end of a performer’s high. Then came the judges’ ratings: They were far lower than I thought she deserved, lower than the ratings of many of the speakers who preceded her. I was worried. My student can be harshly critical of her writing until it is fully polished. Having encouraged her to speak in front of the crowd in the first place, I didn’t want her to turn overly self-critical or feel dejected by the ratings. And so for the rest of that night, I was clear about my teacher mission: I wanted to celebrate her courage for stepping up to the microphone.

In his recent book, Helping Children Succeed, Paul Tough writes about the startling conclusion of a massive study of teacher effectiveness. According to Northwestern University economist C. Kirabo Jackson, who tracked the performance of 500,000 students in North Carolina over seven years from ninth grade on, there emerged from the data set two categories of highly effective teachers. In the first category were the teachers who consistently raised student test scores. These are the teachers who win awards and receive high evaluations and sometimes bonuses.

But it is the second category of excellent teachers that fascinates me. I’ll call this second group of teachers “nurturers,” though you might also see them as inspirers or motivators. These teachers don’t raise standardized test scores. Rather, their achievements show up as better student attendance, fewer suspensions, higher on-time grade progression, and higher GPAs.

Lest you think that the nurturers are the easy teachers who artificially cheer on students and hand out inflated grades, consider this: The GPAs of students improved not simply while in a nurturer’s class, but also in subsequent classes and in subsequent years as well.

Indeed, when Jackson added up four measures the nurturers excelled at — school attendance, on time grade progression, suspensions and discipline, and overall GPA — he found these measures to be, in Tough’s words “a better predictor than a student’s test scores of whether a student would attend college, a better predictor of adult wages and a better predictor of future arrests.”

Of course, many inspiring, motivating, nurturing teachers (and the students they influenced) have long intuited that their good work produced results beyond what was seen on standardized test scores. Ironically, it has taken the arrival of big data to highlight the magnitude of what they accomplish. The term frequently used to describe what students develop working with these nurturing teachers is “non-cognitive skills.” These are skills or traits such as persistence, ability to get along with others, ability to finish a task, ability to show up on time, and ability to manage and recover from failure.

Long before I heard of Jackson’s study, I had become convinced that cultivating non-cognitive skills was one of the best steps I could take to help my students with their academic (cognitive) work and help them long-term in their lives. The first-year students I mostly teach, around ages 18 and 19, often don’t know how to work through a bad day or a bad week or how to talk to a professor when they blow a deadline or miss an assignment. I have long noticed that if a student misses a class, there’s a good chance they will miss another class. The student then feels guilty and too embarrassed to contact me. In short order, the student falls so far behind on assignments that catching up seems overwhelming and impossible. And so they skip class again.

The irony of course is that if a student simply comes to class and pulls me aside to explain what is going on in their life, I can help them prioritize what to catch up on and provide words of support. To minimize this problem — the missed class, leading to more missed classes, leading to failure — I now insist that students come to class even if they are unprepared, no penalty attached. But when you’re not prepared, I tell my students, you must approach me before the start of class and tell me so.

Knowing at the start of class that a particular student hasn’t completed a reading allows me to avoid embarrassing that student by calling on them to answer a question related to the assignment. Sometimes I can even take a few seconds to fill in background information so that the student can participate in the class discussion.

I insist that my students come to class when they are not prepared because they can still gain a lot from the class. They will feel connected to the course and to me, and they won’t feel so paralyzed by guilt. They are also much more likely, in my experience, to catch up. Since I’ve started this policy, I would say my attendance has increased, but to be fair, I’ve improved in other ways as a teacher, so I can’t chalk up the improved attendance solely to this no-guilt policy about being unprepared. There’s been no decline in the number of students who come to class fully prepared. The requirement that they tell me in person when they are behind is apparently enough to discourage people from abusing that option.

I’ve made other changes that are designed to lure my students out of the binary, good/bad, perfectionist framework that a number of them seem to bring to college from high school. I used to yell at students who were sleeping in my class. These days if I see a student sleeping, I will calmly ask them to take a walk to get some fresh air or I might suggest they get some coffee. The first time I responded to a sleeping student by suggesting coffee and a walk, the student bolted upright. “No, I’m good,” he said. He no doubt sensed a trap. Why would I suggest he get coffee unless it was part of some devious scheme? I told the student there was no penalty for stepping out for a few minutes, but he wouldn’t move.

Finally, I pulled out my wallet, handed the student a few bills, and told him to get me a cup of coffee and to get one for himself if he wanted. It was only after I specified two creams and one sugar that the student relaxed and realized I was not plotting a scheme. Invariably, the times I’ve sent sleepy students out for a walk or for coffee, they have returned within minutes, awake, in a better mood, and able to participate in the class.

My goal in taking this less harsh approach to students is not to be nice. Being “nice” without clear boundaries and limits is a recipe for chaos and student dissatisfaction. My goal is to model for young people how to think maturely, precisely, and creatively about problems they face inside and outside of class. How can I expect them to engage in imaginative thinking on an assignment if I don’t cultivate imaginative thinking on the practical problems they face in class? Yelling at sleeping students, as I did in the old days, didn’t show students how to handle sleepiness. Yelling only made them feel bad, and the result at best was a student who fought to keep their eyes open. Spending all your energy to keep your eyes open leaves little energy for listening, learning, and engaging in the class.

My student was seated by the time the story slam host called on the judges to give their ratings, which were much lower than I had hoped for. I asked her how she was doing and showed her my rating, which was the top possible rating with a bit of extra credit. She was proud of herself, she said, and felt great about speaking at a slam for the first time. She didn’t care what the judges said. Her confident words didn’t prevent me from checking in with her for the rest of the night and the next day as well.

I offered no critique of her performance and no tips on how she might possibly get higher ratings. I focused on her emotional wellbeing because as long as as she felt good about her performance and proud of taking the risk, she would come back and speak at another slam and perhaps another, and without the slightest bit of coaching from me, she would invariably get higher ratings. After the event, we found a grille and munched on some French fries. I’m betting it won’t be long before I get a note from her about attending the next slam. •

Feature image by Maren Larsen. Source image courtesy of CollegeDegrees360 via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Robert Anthony Watts is an associate teaching professor in Drexel University’s Department of English and Philosophy.
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