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The Importance of Teaching Soft Skills

Merry Sorrells
ou may have noticed that I keep writing about the importance of teaching "soft skills," and you may be wondering why.  Why focus on teaching skills such as empathy, resilience, adaptability, teamwork, and self-confidence?  And, how will learning these skills help a child get into the right college?  An article in Forbes Magazine* opens with these words, "Empathy matters.  And it needs to be taught in schools."  An article I read on the Edutopia website had this to say: "Right near the core of education, just past tolerance and just short of affectionate connectivity, is the idea of empathy."  In the Forbes article, a study is cited which offers evidence that test scores actually improve with the teaching of empathy.  Empathy is a skill, a competency which can and should be intentionally taught.
You may have noticed that I keep writing about the importance of teaching "soft skills," and you may be wondering why.  Why focus on teaching skills such as empathy, resilience, adaptability, teamwork, and self-confidence?  And, how will learning these skills help a child get into the right college?  An article in Forbes Magazine* opens with these words, "Empathy matters.  And it needs to be taught in schools."  An article I read on the Edutopia website** had this to say: "Right near the core of education, just past tolerance and just short of affectionate connectivity, is the idea of empathy."  In the Forbes article, a study is cited which offers evidence that test scores actually improve with the teaching of empathy.  Empathy is a skill, a competency which can and should be intentionally taught.  Equally important is the knowledge that these habits, attitudes, and social graces help our young people develop into good and compatible co-workers and employees. Companies value soft skills because research suggests, and experience shows, that they can be just as important an indicator of job performance as hard skills.  Because St. Martin's is a faith-based school, empathy is inherently taught and practiced every day.

I will never forget the moment that our son Curtis, a senior in high school at the time, walked into my office one day at lunchtime.  My back was to the door, and when I turned around to his "Hi Mom," I was shocked to see his freshly shaven head.  His beautiful blond hair was gone and he looked eerily like our daughter Jenn, who was undergoing chemotherapy and had lost her hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes.  I quickly realized that was his intent, and in that moment I was overcome with emotion.  I rose to hug him and we both reflected, wordlessly, on the magnitude of this empathetic act.
Jenn was a champion throughout her battle with cancer.  She faced each day courageously and expected to triumph.  One of the biggest struggles we saw her grapple with was that of losing her hair.  She was a beautiful girl, newly engaged, picking out wedding dresses and imagining every detail of her bridal portrait when the diagnosis came.  Naturally, Jenn had wanted to look perfect for her big day.  So, losing her hair was devastating for her, and each of us watched her cope with her sadness as she grew accustomed to her changed appearance.

Curtis didn't know, when he shaved his head that day, that not only was he bolstering his sister's courage with his show of solidarity, but he was helping himself cope with his own heartache as well.  Curtis shaved his head for several years on the anniversary of Jenn's passing. Empathy is a healing agent for both the receiver and the giver.  And with healing comes strength.  There were many opportunities throughout this journey with Jenn which taught her, her brother, her sisters, parents, family, and friends the value of empathy.  The lessons our family learned through this trial gave us a lifetime of brightness to hang onto in spite of our deep loss.

This has been a tough year for our Upper School students.  Three of our boys lost their fathers this year, and some of their teachers have experienced great personal loss as well.  I have been tremendously impressed with the empathy, love, and support our students have shown for each other and their teachers, and their teachers, in turn, for them.  In each instance they have stayed by the sides of their friends and helped in every way they could.  They are being educated in an environment which prizes and teaches soft skills, such as empathy.  It is what our families, who intentionally choose to send their children to an Episcopal school, teach at home. Our students are good people and we couldn't be more proud. 

One message we hear continually from our graduates and from our current families is that we, St. Martin's, are a community.  Our graduates leave with a mental address book of classmates, teachers, and staff members whom they can draw on for help, support, and friendship any time, from anywhere.  The sense of community at St. Martin's is priceless.

The Forbes article closes with this paragraph, "The capacity for empathy builds the socio-economic potential for individuals, and, further, likely holds the key for the success of business in the 21st century. Empathy isn't just about hugs and pats on the back. It is a skill that can make young people more productive in work environments that require cooperation and in a global economy that becomes more complex with each passing day. It is what turns them into future leaders."

As we work to educate our future leaders, we will continue to emphasize the soft skills alongside the teaching of hard skills.  By doing this, we are fulfilling our mission of preparing them to thrive in college and in life!
 
*The Forbes article, written by John Converse Townsend, is "Why We Should Teach Empathy to Improve Education (and Test Scores)." Published September 26, 2012. Read article online 

**The article from the Edutopia website, by Terry Heick, is "Teaching Empathy: Are We Teaching Content or Students?" Published February 10, 2015. Read article online
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