The summer before my first semester as an adjunct English professor at Robert Morris University, I spent countless hours preparing my syllabi and considering how best to usher my young freshmen into their first college-level writing class. Little did I realize that my extensive preparation was overlooking many of the non-academic skills that my students needed to be successful in college.
Many students were often ill-prepared to navigate the new “adult” world that they were entering, where they alone were responsible for registering for appropriate courses, showing up to those classes on-time and prepared to work, and communicating with professors. In fact, it was this last issue that was often the most problematic for my first-year students. I had students address me as “Teach” (short for “teacher”), as in, “Hey Teach! What homework did we have to do for today?” Others emailed me as casually as they would text their friends: “do u want us to email u the paper or bring it to class? thnx!”
At first I thought it was because I looked so young—I was young!—that my students communicated with what was to me a disconcerting level of familiarity. After speaking with colleagues and discovering the ubiquity of this informality among students, I decided it was time to integrate some basic lessons on communication and other soft skills* into my curricula.
After that first semester, I took the time to discuss email etiquette with my students; I also began to more deliberately model appropriate, formal speech in the classroom, and explicitly set expectations for how and when to communicate with professors. When we discussed Robert MacNeil’s essay, “English Belongs to Everybody,” we focused on the tension between the informality and adaptability of the English language and its evolution over the centuries, and the need to still adhere to certain standards of grammar and formality in order to be taken seriously as young adults, and ultimately, become successful professionals.
While these lessons may seem obvious to most, for my students they were not. In fact, teaching soft skills is often overlooked when it comes to preparing students for college, which is about much more than one’s ability to master academic content. Indeed, while colleges offer classes to remediate students in writing or math, no such courses typically exist to bolster students’ non-cognitive skills.
This experience in this classroom is ultimately what led me to make the switch from higher education to K-12 education reform. I was heartened to work with K-12 educators who recognized the need to more deliberately teach students a range of skills—from time management to teamwork to study skills--that play such a vital role in ensuring success in college and beyond. I explored research and resources** for principals and teachers who wanted to create cultures and instill habits that supported college readiness. Though we recognized that the adjustment to college would remain a challenge for many students, we also knew that by intentionally teaching and measuring their progress in developing these skills, we could begin to find ways to better prepare and support students to make this transition.
*Soft skills include a wide range attributes, such as attitude, adaptability, professionalism, communication, critical thinking, etc.
**Examples include works by David Conley, Angela Duckworth, and The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, among many others.