Four Essential Teaching Skills for the 21st Century Educator

When my son Daniel started the first grade, he was struggling with reading.

My wife and I felt that we’d done everything we could as parents, placing him in preschool programs at age two, and reading to him every night.

We were understandably concerned.  Reading is critical for academic success, and our son was behind.

The great blessing for Daniel was being placed into Mrs. Thompson’s first grade class.

Upon getting the assignment, we heard from many people how fortunate we were.  Mrs. Thompson had a great reputation for helping students read better, and we would be amazed, they said.

They were right.

Within three months, our son went from reading at one level below to one level above.  I remember how pleased I was that Daniel had ended up with Mrs. Thompson, and what a shame it was that every child couldn’t experience the benefit of having her as a teacher.

However, we soon learned that there was even more to Mrs. Thompson than great teaching skills.

reading-and-learning

That same year, Daniel was assessed for some other challenges he was having.  The psychologist performed a battery of tests, and interviewed my wife, me, and Daniel’s teachers.

Part of the process involved the doctor observing him in the classroom so she could see the academic as well as social and emotional aspects of his personality.

The psychologist concluded that Daniel was extremely bright with typical challenges that many young boys face.

Toward the end of the session, though, she couldn’t help but point out what she seen in Mrs. Thompson’s classroom when Daniel had gotten into a conflict with another student.

“What I saw in that classroom was not only a great teacher,” she continued, “but also a great therapist.”

Having observed Mrs. Thompson’s approach to resolving the conflict, she said, “It was textbook – I couldn’t have handled it any better myself.”

Daniel was thriving not simply due to the quality of the instruction, but also because of how Mrs. Thompson was managing the emotions and social interactions of her students.

The world doesn’t need new curriculum.  There is always room for improvement, but I would argue that we excel at the mechanics of teaching subject matter, and a constant focus on new content and revised methods for teaching it will only deliver marginal improvements.

What the world needs is more Mrs. Thompsons.

That is, 21st century educators who’ve developed the skills of therapists; who can navigate student anxieties and mental challenges; who make their classes into safe and empowering environments where students can successfully absorb what they’re being taught.

Now, it’s neither realistic nor fair to expect any teacher to show up packing the range of skills associated with a trained therapist.

It is, however, a necessity that all teachers develop certain capacities that will allow them to manage the new dynamics of our youth and the classrooms they learn in.

Here are 4 critical 21st century teaching skills that all teachers can and should master:

1 – Build Essential Perspective

Many years ago, we were running a program for at-risk middle school students.  We asked, as we often do, if anyone didn’t want to be there.

A boy named Eduardo got up and said he thought the program was a joke, that we were a joke, and the only reason he was there was because his teacher made him attend.  He told us he planned to skip the next day so he didn’t have to listen to our garbage.

My initial reaction was anger.  We were volunteering our time, and this kid not only had no appreciation, he actually resented us.

Shortly after, my teammate Nashid sat down with Eduardo.  I saw them laugh, goof off a bit and have what looked like a few meaningful conversations.

I am not sure what was said, but it was magic.  After two days, Eduardo was the first one to share how the program had impacted his life.  He also went on to be the first person in his family to graduate high school, and is now working to become a police officer.

I asked Nashid what he’d said during those early chats, and was surprised when he told me he really said nothing, he just hung out with Eduardo.

Nashid had grown up and taught high school math in Detroit.  He had witnessed some of the worst experiences a student can have in our country… so he understood where the anger came from.

Nashid had an insightful perspective, but it’s one that all of us can develop as well:

There is no such thing as bad kids, just good kids making bad decisions.

When I visit a school, my first question is often, how do you like your students?  I can tell a lot from their responses.

Great schools and great teachers believe in their students.  They understand that each of them has something extraordinary to offer the world, and our job as educators is to support and empower our students to discover and share their unique genius.

If we don’t like our students, we don’t believe in them… so then how could we possibly teach them?

2 – Get Vulnerability Training

Brené Brown is one of my favorite authors.  She got me when I first heard her say, “It’s when we are vulnerable that we’re most beautiful.”

This is a hard concept to grasp, but when you dig into it, it rings true.

Think about some of the wonderful moments in your life:  when you asked someone to marry you, took the game-deciding shot, asked for a raise, jumped out of a plane, opened your heart to the object of your affection, took a risk and put on a pink shirt…

These were the energizing moments of your life, full of joy, meaning and significance.

These were the moments when you made deep connections with others and really understood that you weren’t alone in the world.

I’ve watched hundreds of teachers over the past 5 years teach the programs we provide to schools.  There is one clear factor which differentiates those who teach our program extraordinarily from those who don’t:

The willingness to share parts of themselves with their students, sometimes even the parts they aren’t proud of.

When we as educators authentically share of ourselves, we create an environment in which students are empowered to do the same.

This is the essential ingredient to creating the connections and sense of community that all teachers want in their classrooms.

3 – Develop Facilitation Skills

For many years, we had the pleasure of working with an extraordinary leadership trainer.

In our programs with teachers, we would ask her to teach facilitation skills. These were the same strategies and techniques she was teaching executives at some of the largest and most successful companies in the world.

To this day, I still hear from our teachers about how powerful the simple strategies she taught were.  How to redirect conversation, how to diffuse controversy, how to cushion constructive comments.

These ideas apply not only at the highest level of business, but continue to make an impact in our classrooms around the world.

Every bone in teachers tells them to teach, to have the answers and get the students to master the content.  And certainly, some subject matter demands this.

However, as we look to a future we cannot fathom, it is becoming more about the conversation and the process.

I honestly can’t tell you all the things my kids need to know to be happy, by I can absolutely tell you how they need to think.  And shaping them to do so requires non-traditional teaching skills, such as facilitating conversations and participating in the learning process, and not just hammering home the steps to their students’ achieving content mastery.

4 – Learn Restorative Discipline

We lost an extraordinary human when Maya Angelou passed away in 2014.

In my mind, her impact is best summed up by one of her famous quotes:

“They will not remember what you say, nor even what you do, but they will always remember how you made them feel.”

Students, like all of us, do good when they feel good.

They thrive when they know people believe in them, and they’ll love and respect you when they know you won’t give up on them.

We as parents and educators need to be both kinder and firmer.  We need to find restorative words and processes rather than punitive ones, and make sure our kids maintain a sense of belonging and significance.

In our work at schools, we’ve seen significant reduction in behavior problems.  These benefits have nothing to do with new discipline practices, and everything to do with equipping teachers with a new language and the perspective to de-escalate classroom issues.

This means, as many teachers say, “We’re keeping butts in seats,” but more importantly, we’re minimizing the disruptions that affect students in every classroom at every school.

At the core of restorative discipline is the ability to develop an environment of trust.  This requires techniques that drive teachers to understand why the behavior issue took place, rather than automatically focusing on the action and the punishment.

It is a process that involves the student, and ultimately guides them toward “righting the wrong.”  It is a process of growth, and helps build a classroom culture in which every student can thrive.

Every day, millions of parents (myself included) hand over the most precious things in our lives to our educators, asking them to use their teaching skills like superpowers to give our kids everything we’re not so they’ll be able to create lives they can be proud of.

We’re asking a lot.

We can’t ask teachers to be therapists.  But it is possible for teachers to employ the softer skills outlined above to create greater connectedness and community, to de-escalate classroom issues, to steer more kids away from harsher discipline and allow therapists to focus on those that truly need help.

We can transform education, but it will only happen when our teachers realize they can no longer rely on the techniques that worked for hundreds of years but just aren’t sufficient today.

By embracing the 21st century teaching skills outlined above, our educators will be ready and able to navigate the new world that student development has become!

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