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?

The Private School Myth

Consider this excerpt from a Jonathan Mahler NYT article about Tiger’s return to golf:

On six separate occasions, he (Jay Williamson, 43) has finished the season without a strong-enough record to keep his eligibility for the PGA Tour and been forced to earn it back at the tour’s grueling 108-hole qualifying tournament, known as Q-School. Williamson has never won a PGA Tour event. Nevertheless, thanks to golf’s soaring purses during the Woods era, he has managed to earn more than $5.5 million during his 15-year career. “I certainly don’t live like a king,” he said, “but I do have three kids in private school, and that’s probably a direct result of Tiger.”

Williamson’s quote is symbolic of the American public’s belief that private schools are inherently superior to public ones. As an undergrad, I worked part-time for two years in a public elementary, taught for four years in public high schools in Los Angeles, one year at a private high school in Ethiopia, and attended both public and private universities. As a teacher educator, I visit schools all the time, mostly public ones. If I’m an expert about anything, it’s secondary education. My daughters have spent 30% of their schooling in privates and 70% in publics.

It’s easy to understand why people subscribe to the private school myth, we’re conditioned to believe “you get what you pay for”. But truth be told, that’s not always true and private schools are not inherently superior to public ones. There are good, bad, and mediocre public and private schools. Good publics are better than mediocre privates. Based on my experience, you’ll find a larger proportion of  truly outstanding teachers in publics. There are  lots of solid private school teachers too, but they have the wind at their back in the form of smaller classes and often required, built-in parent/family involvement.

In fifth grade (middle schools in Olympia, WA are 6th-8th grade), daughter one made her first independent decision of consequence when she decided she wanted to attend a local private independent school for the “academically talented”. Me, “But all your friends are going to Wash.” Her, “I’ll make new ones.”

There were a few minor and one major benefit of her private experience. Among the minor benefits, she was given more writing assignments than her public peers and received more detailed feedback on her compositions. The school also did a nice job using small group projects that engaged the students. The major benefit was her five or six closest female friends all cared equally as much about doing well in school. As a result, there was serious positive academic momentum. They spent a lot of time in the evening completing projects over the phone at the exact time a lot of middle school girls are dumbing themselves down in the hope of appearing more attractive.

The downside of her experience, and many private school students’ experiences, was the homogenous nature of the student body. Everyone was high achieving, most students were upper middle class and white or Asian-American. As adults we know that our success and happiness depend as much or more from our people smarts than our book smarts. When will my daughter and her friends learn to interact thoughtfully with young people different than themselves? Isn’t interpersonal intelligence part and parcel of being well educated?

This brings to mind a related myth, that public schools are inherently more diverse than private. While probably true in the aggregate, with tracking, or homogenous ability grouping, we end up with schools-within-schools. In other words, there are multiple Olympia High Schools, one that my daughter and her friends attend that consists largely of Advanced Placement courses and another for everyone else. Some public high schools have three or more schools-within-schools.

The public-private school water is far muddier than most people realize.