I wrote an entry last week on the state’s push to teach soft skills in high school. Here is a response from a newly retired high school teacher, Pat Pepper, on that topic:
Your column “Teaching punctuality 101″ caused me to smile sadly and shake my head. On May 31, I retired after 30 years in the classroom. For most of those years, I was a public high school English teacher here in Georgia.
After my first two years teaching, I quit the classroom because I could not live on the $5,200 a year salary that beginning teachers made. I got a job as an office supervisor for a large insurance company based in Atlanta.
In that position I quickly learned that my most valuable employees were those with enough intelligence to learn their jobs and were reliable in their attendance. I once had to fire the brightest employee I had ever had because I could not count on her to be at work when needed.
When I returned to teaching, I saw a great need to not only teach the hard skills of good communication but the soft ( or “life” as I called them) skills as well. In the ’70s, it seemed that education administrators and teachers were on the same page concerning the importance of both hard and soft skills. That is not the case today.
Because teachers are on the front lines of education, daily working face to face with students, they know that they can only impart hard skills in a well-disciplined class with students who show up regularly. Discipline and attendance are considered soft skills.
Today, because of high-stakes testing, merit pay, and the scramble for both state and federal funds, administrators find themselves having to resort to Machiavellian (”The end justifies the means.”) tactics. Here are a few examples:
Schools receive federal dollars based on attendance records. In the Georgia school system I retired from, teachers were told that they could not penalize students’ grades due to non-academic behaviors ( such as sleeping in class), but the administration apparently saw no incongruity when they told teachers they had to add a 10 percent bonus to the final exams of all students who had “perfect” attendance. “Perfect” did not really mean perfect, however. In the school system “perfect” meant no more than two excused absences. I never understood how attendance did not qualify as a non-academic behavior, except when thinking in Machiavellian terms.
Georgia law requires students to be present a certain number of days in order to get academic credit. If a student is not in attendance those required days, he or she will fail the class or will have to appeal. The appeal committee must be made up of teachers and administrators.
Teachers, trying to teach the truant a life lesson, usually do not grant the appeals unless there is hard evidence of medical difficulties. The administrators are worried about failure rates, not life lessons. In my school, for several years, the committee was abolished and one sole administrator made all the appeal decisions. You can guess how many appeals were granted.
When it comes to the scramble for money, both hard and soft skills take a beating.
1. Pep-rallies: The football team brings in the most money, so it is perfectly all right to take students out of class in order to rev them up to attend the football game. Georgia State Law has set a maximum amount of time that students can be out of class for non-academic events. Try asking the principal for that time log!
2. Hypocritical Classes: Georgia State Law requires high school students to take a Health class. There they learn the importance of good nutrition, but scattered all around the school are vending machines begging them to buy junk food. The school gets a monetary cut of these machines. No wonder they don’t take what we teach seriously.
3. Fund-raisers: In my high school, the dress code did not allow students to wear hats. The reason given by administrators was that the security cameras could not video faces obscured by hats. However, on “hat days” the students could pay to wear a hat. Was security not important on those days?
Teachers have been trying to hold up the standards of both hard and soft skills because they know, ultimately, that students will need both to be productive employees and citizens; however, they are losing the battle. Soft skill questions don’t show up on CRCT’s, EOCT’s, SAT’s, ACT’s, AP’s, ad nauseum.
Many more teachers in Georgia will be on merit pay this school year (as APS teachers were when the cheating occurred). I hope the pressure to succeed based on flawed criteria will not cause them to abandon their own set of soft skills due to fear.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog