Why we teach the “other stuff”

November 13, 2017

Geoff Krall

“I don’t know what to say.”

“I don’t know how to talk to him.”

I’m sitting in a coffee shop with my back facing a mentor and her mentee, a college student who is apparently struggling through her semester. I can hear them clearly, even though I’m trying not to eavesdrop. The mentor is pleading with her mentee to email one of her professors to get help with an assignment, or even figure out when office hours are. “I don’t even know what to say!” the student response. The mentor patiently describes what questions to ask and how to start off the email, to no avail. “I don’t know how to talk to him!” she keeps responding. Pretty soon the student starts doing that thing that teenagers do where they start laughing when they’re really uncomfortable . It’s an unintentional defense mechanism employed by nearly all adolescents. She’s embarrassed by her inability to perform a seemingly simple task, so she starts blushing and laughing.

“I don’t want to talk to someone else.”

“That sounds like so many words.”

Later on, the mentor is trying to get the mentee to call the registrar’s office to find some information about something or other. Again, the student giggles that she doesn’t know how to talk over the phone. The mentor clearly cares deeply for her mentee. The mentee is clearly embarrassed at how nervous she is communicating to professionals.


Teachers sometimes scoff when we implore them to teach those other things. Things like communication skills, groupwork skills, self-reflection, these are “soft skills” that don’t appear in our scope and sequence. The state test doesn’t address them, and we have too much content already to cover to worry about these phony-baloney skills. I’m a math teacher, I teach math, that’s what I do. That’s my responsibility.

I can’t speak to the mentee’s instruction, but I’ve seen it frequently enough. Listening to her, she was paralyzed when it came to communicating with other adults, or at all. This is something she did not learn, let alone practice, while in High School. And now it’s preventing her from succeeding at the post-secondary level. Her paralysis wasn’t that she didn’t know her content well enough, it was that she didn’t have the ability to find out how to further her content knowledge. Whether that was technically the purview of her secondary math teacher or not, the responsibility to prepare students for post-secondary life falls on each of her teachers and the system in which they teach.

Does that mean that it is your responsibility – as, say, a math teacher – to teach students how to make phone calls? Or email professionals? Or create a study group? Or manage their time? Or teach all of those non-math skills?

Yes. Yes, it is.

The reason I taught math was because I love math. The reason I taught math the way I did was because I wanted students to grow as communicators and problem-solvers. Thankfully, I taught in a school in which we were unified that these were indeed skills we wanted our students to have when they graduated. I now coach in a model that aspires to make that happen for all students.

In our classrooms, we have students call and set up meetings with mentors in the business or academic communities. We have students stand and defend their work. We assess students on eye contact as well as content knowledge. And we teach them how to do it, not just tell them to and let them flounder. We do these, not in isolation, but as an entire school. In my class, this included these activities, as well as complex math problems that required collaboration, presentation of new and novel ideas, and practice and structures to handle it when these proved exceptionally difficult.



I’m heartened by these mentor-mentee relationships. Whether they were established via a specific program or they grew organically, there’s genuine care there. As exasperated as the mentor was, she showed active, authentic caring. I’m glad the mentee has that support system in place now that she’s in college. She’ll need the skills her mentor offers, as she clearly didn’t receive them in High School.


This blog originally appeared on Emergent Math.