Can Individuals Learn to Be People Smart?

Can beginning teachers learn to interact with their co-workers, students, and students’ families more successfully? Can they improve their interpersonal skills? Can they learn to listen, to empathize, to communicate more clearly, to use humor appropriately, to caringly discipline, and in the end, to competently direct student learning? Can individuals more generally learn to be “people smart”?

Yes, to a degree, I think.

My hesitation in part is a result of working with a teacher in training a few years ago. His test scores and content knowledge were off the charts. His Aspergers didn’t surface until he was in the classroom with thirty-five diverse teens who couldn’t care less about his book smarts. Unable to decipher half of what was going on in the classroom, he washed out of his student-teaching internship.

State teacher credential bureaucrats require passing scores on content exams, but prospective candidates interpersonal skills aren’t evaluated at all. Granted, evaluating them in a valid and reliable manner would be tough, but no one is even trying. Instead, we just assume everyone with the requisite book smarts has sufficient people smarts.

Once teacher candidates are in credential programs, what should teacher educators and their classroom mentors do to help them strengthen their interpersonal skills? What about MBA students? What about doctor residencies? What do business and medical faculty do to help their students develop leadership and bedside manner skills? Like state teacher credential bureaucrats, most teacher educators focus far too narrowly on content. The thinking being, “If they just know enough about their content, curriculum, and assessment, they’ll be fine.”

But that’s not the case. The thoughtful and effective application of content knowledge requires well developed interpersonal skills.

One powerful case-study I use in my teaching requires students to role play an angry student, a teacher, and an upset parent. I use it to emphasize the importance of active listening. Even more important, beginning teachers need to see their mentors model active listening; use humor and communicate clearly; discipline in a firm but caring manner; be friendly, but not friends.

I recently finished reading an amazing book that I recommend: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. In one especially moving passage, Mukherjee’s describes Thomas Lynch’s otherwordly touch with patients. He writes, “I watched him resuscitate. He emphasized process over outcome and transmitted astonishing amounts of information with a touch so slight that you might not even feel it.”

Mukherjee was fortunate to learn from Lynch. Teachers in training get assigned mentors by the schools where they intern. It’s a serious structural impediment to improved teaching, a mentoring as turn-taking lottery where too many interns are assigned veterans with iffy interpersonal skills.

What about you? Whatever you deem to be your interpersonal strengths, have they always been built-in or are they the result of two steps forward, one back learning processes?

2 thoughts on “Can Individuals Learn to Be People Smart?

  1. This is one of my hobby horses too. I was never a social butterfly and definitely had to learn something about student-teacher interaction the hard way — shy introvert thrown into classroom, what fun! But I figured it out.

    I agree that interpersonal skills are all but ignored when assessing how well someone is going to do as a teacher. Worse yet, I believe that having very good social skills is actually held against you by ‘serious’ academic culture — I always suspect some long-trauma involving the captain of the cheerleading squad or something.

    As for learning, hell yes interpersonal skills can be learned. Peer mentoring is an effective way to help younger people with Asberger’s (they’re paired with a non-Asberger’s partner who teaches them to recognize social cues). So I don’t see why it should be any different for professionals who are entering people-intensive trades. Except, of course, that it would have to be recognized as valuable first.

  2. Good article Ron. The best teachers I’ve seen are those who were comfortable in their own skin. Their ability to communicate effectively with students I think enabled their academics creds and it certainly made students more willing to focus on what was being taught.

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