4 Skills Every Student Needs

4 skills every student needs

One of the things I miss the most about the classroom is discussing novels with students and the way that set students up to thoughtfully approach tough conversations. We’d open up The Great Gatsby or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Invisible Man and dive headlong into some of life’s biggest questions.

We’d talk about what it means to be valued as a person and walk through how easy it is to devalue someone and how hard it is to rebuild someone who has felt less than.

We’d spend time talking about the American Dream–what it meant to them, what it meant to characters in the text–and talk about whether it is alive today (and if it’s alive in the same way for everyone in our diverse classroom).

We’d invest time in serious conversation about those who are invisible among us. Those who might identify with the narrator of Invisible Man who declares that he is “invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see” him.

There’s a lot there, and that only scratches the surface of everything we would get into. It was great conversation, but it was even better knowing that I was sending students out confident that they knew how to engage with their peers and their community for the better.

Though the conversations focused either on the literature or on its implications, students acquired a number of soft skills through the process that were as valuable as the content of the exchanges. Removed from those conversations, I think our students’ education is incomplete without these skills.

Don’t hear me saying that these can only be developed over in discussion of literature. That’s not reality for many teachers, and it’s no longer my reality. Still, students with these four abilities have the skills to create peace, stability, and hope where it is lacking. If that’s not worth pursuing, I don’t know what is.


Disagree with an idea instead of a person. Too often, we treat this as an all or nothing. We mistake an opinion for an individual, and if we’re not careful, we miss out on a chance to learn something different. I think we’re pretty bad about this as adults. We have work to do to be the models we need to be, but I think it can be done. This, like many of these traits, is remarkable when it shows up. People notice. Look for opportunities to shed light on this concept for your students and peers.

Repay wrongdoing with kindness. This doesn’t fit with much of our mythology. Ours is a story of getting the most, getting the best, getting even, getting what you deserve. But at home, I ask my boys to do this. They’re 2 and 4, and although I believe that consequences are part of our actions, they’re learning from that I don’t care who started it. When wrong has been done, they repay it with kindness (and so does the one who bit his brother, for what it’s worth). I think there’s incredible potential for modeling this as adults. What power we could bring to students. What an alternative to lashing out. I’m not asking anyone to get walked on here. I’m just trying to imagine a better way.

See a situation from another person’s perspective. I loved asking questions that teased out this conversation (especially when students thought they had things figured out). I’m not big on ranking or creating a hierarchy of soft skills, but the ability to step into another person’s point of view, see things from his or her perspective, and respond differently to a situation as a result has to be up near the top. It’s not something that can be forced, and it’s rarely developed as quickly as we would like (or as would be beneficial for those who interact with the learner). But it is an absolute necessity to have this skill. Graduation requirements should be incomplete without it.

Find hope, even when it’s tough to see it. I’m not asking you to be Pollyanna, nor am I asking you to look past a situation that calls for grief or sorrow. What I do think is valuable is to train ourselves to find hope in situations where it is apparent and to quickly move toward it after we have walked through a valley. We know that our brains like patterns, and everything I’ve seen and experienced indicates that the positive patterns take more time to develop than their negative counterparts. So take time to find hope daily. Talk about it with your students. It matters so deeply.

These skills aren’t magic. They don’t eliminate hurt or sorrow or loss, and I would never claim they would. What they do is give us the power to navigate tough conversations with human responses. Responses that need to press into vulnerable spaces in conversations where we have to pursue understanding long before we seek to respond. But these are just four ideas. What else do you believe we need to instill in our students? When they leave your campus, what do they need to be successful, productive members of society?

A Different Call To The Office

A Different Call To The Office

It’s May. While all eyes turn to the end of the year, I think it’s time we start counting up some of the end of year conversations we need to have before summer starts and we’re not seeing our students each day.

I’ve written before about my belief that we are wired up so that things outside us tell us who we are (here’s the link if you’re interested). That’s neither good nor bad; for me, it’s reality. Without getting into the whole logic behind it and whether or not that sits well with you, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say there is great value in speaking truth into the lives of our students.

My role as a assistant principal puts me in conversations with many students who have failed to meet expectations. I realized late last week though that a student who I visited with quite frequently last school year had a reasonably good fall and a fantastic spring semester. It didn’t take long for me to realize that it was time to call him to the office for a different sort of conversation.

This student is the one who is nearly unrecognizable from himself last year. He’s turned it around in terms of behavior, and that’s led to him being a totally different academic student. Here’s what he’ll hear from me:

Last year was not your year. We had a lot of conversations–too many–in which I told you that you were the only one who could turn it around, that you had to want it. I meant it when I said that. I was serious. And you did it. I’m impressed with the young man you’re becoming. Let me know if there’s anything big of small I can do to help you out.

Once I started through this conversation, I realized there were more students I needed to visit with. I’d like to share a few of the conversations that I realized I need to have with some of my students. Maybe one or two will remind you of a student you work with. If so, I challenge you to go and share a word of encouragement with that student. Be specific with the growth you’ve seen and share candidly how students have made an impact for the better this year.

The “Invests In Others Well” Student

This student is the one who gets along with everyone. She’s popular, but she really doesn’t care about that popularity. She treats everyone as equals. She is present with each person she interacts with, and each person’s day is better after interacting with her. Here’s what I’ll tell her:

“You’re a popular student who is successful academically. Really, it’s hard to find something that’s not going well for you. But what’s most impressive to me is the way you value people. I notice that you do a great job investing in others. You make little conversations a big deal, and the way you interact with everyone I see leaves them feeling better about themselves afterward. Thanks for investing in others.”

The “Always Positive” Student

This student is the one who always says hi. The one who is busy, who has plenty going on, but who always takes time to say hi. Even to this assistant principal. I’ve written before about the value of those little interactions, and seeing her interact with others reminds me to go back and be better about those little interactions because, on the other side of them, they really do make a difference.

“Thanks for taking time to be positive. I see your positivity each and every day. I know that it probably takes a concerted effort on some days to stay so positive. But I want you to know that I’m thankful for the way you interact with others so positively. It makes me better, and I’m thankful when we cross paths.”

My Challenge

So, who do you need to speak into this month? Time is ticking. Summer will be here soon. When you hear the countdowns that too often creep into conversation at school, remember that with each day and each hour, we have less time to invest in our students. Take the time to do that well over the next few weeks.

Grit Doesn’t Mean More

91 winter blogsGrit does not mean more.

It can be about sticking with a task, operating in a zone of stretch, figuring out a way to stay engaged with a challenge that’s not easy to complete, or seeing the long view on the struggles we find ourselves in. Notice that none of that is about how much or how little we’ve done.

Grit doesn’t measure volume of work completed. It’s an attitude toward our work, a response in the face of challenge.

Yes, grit is taking the marathoner’s mindset over the sprinter’s. But any distance runner will tell you that success results from a long series of decisions to keep going, through the pain, toward the end goal.

So when we ask our students to demonstrate grit, we can’t simply ask them to do more problems or write longer papers. We’re asking them to take the longer view, to see the end result, and to value this step–no matter how insignificant it might seem at the moment–as important because it’s helping them inch closer to that end goal.

It’s A Struggle

It's A Struggle

I’ve spent about a year actually engaging on Twitter. It took me a while to come around to the idea that I could not only find time to engage, but also find that time was well spent.

In that time, I’ve learned more than I could imagine, connected to educators all over the country (no small task for this introvert), and begun to share on my own via Twitter (@aaron_hogan), this blog, and Voxer (aaron_hogan).

But with so many options for engaging online, it’s been pretty easy for me to walk a comfortable path for throughout much of that experience. Sure, there’s certainly a great deal of hesitation that accompanies the first time you jump into a chat or the moment when you finally, after great hesitation, hit publish on your blog. Those were big moments for me, but those risks dealt with the process, not the content of the conversation.

What I’m realizing is that one of the down sides of having so many great conversations to join is that you don’t have to have the hard conversations if you don’t want to. You don’t have to talk about the parts of education that are hard, or you have the opportunity to talk about them at a distance in terms of risks and vulnerability without tying those to a particular, personal issue. I think it’s time for me to start to dig into those topics a little more.

One example of what I’m talking about is the idea of the “I’m in classrooms for an extended part of my day” administrator.

I can’t remember an idea that I’ve been so drawn to yet so unable to realize in practice.

My failure to put this into practice, or even to put a first step into practice, really weighs on me, and I find myself struggling with a lot of different emotions when I hear principals talk about being able to be in classrooms so much.

I’m jealous of their time spent with students, the relationships developed there, and, honestly, of how easy it all looks on this side of a Tweet. At later points, that turns to hope for a future new normal for myself, but that can seem like it’s awfully far off in the distance at times.

I hate that this is my reaction. Really. I struggle with that.

I have a great deal of respect for what these educators are able to accomplish day in and day out. I’m awed by their impact on students and campus culture. I’m spurred on by their willingness to do the job differently than many educators, yet I find myself in this fearful pattern that takes some work to shake.

And so I start with something small (read that as “easy” so I can have a little success on the front end). Maybe I’ll try to add an hour, just a class period a few days this week. But when that, too, doesn’t pan out, the defeat that’s left feels pretty final. I just feel foolish that I can’t make it work.

It sounds so easy. If you want to not be in the office, just don’t be in the office, right?

Well, I can’t seem to make it work.

Admittedly, I don’t see as many assistant principal voices (or at least I don’t identify many as such) talking about being able to engage at this level with students; maybe this isn’t part of the job I’m doing now.

But I feel the weight of it, and I want to grow into this habit as a school leader. I don’t think I’m alone, but it doesn’t make it feel any less so at times.

Though I’d gladly take any pointers on getting out of the office, that’s really beside the point here. I guess I’m sharing this to say this: Living through the struggle, the emotions, and the effort to rise up out of that feeling that comes when you’ve tried and tried and continue to fail is worth it. I think it’s important we hear that not only from the people who have conquered the mountain, but also from those who are standing at the bottom looking for the path.

As you grow and work through failure, you’re not alone. I say that for you and as a reminder to myself.

You’re not alone, and it’s worth it.

An Anxious Moment

An Anxious MomentEarlier this week, four buildings were evacuated at Harvard University after a bomb threat surfaced. Although this sort of thing happens with some frequency, this was different. I was across the street.

I first heard of the threats in the checkout line in a store, and I immediately did what’s become my natural instinct when I need info about an event that’s happening right now—I went to Twitter. But emerging from the basement of this building in an area of Cambridge that must be something of a dead zone, I couldn’t get service. I had no information about what was happening, where I should go, or how credible these threats even were. I kept second guessing myself, too, and wondered if I had even overheard the right information.

I was more than a little freaked out by the whole experience.

Still, I was beginning to experience this really anxious moment on my first day alone in Boston after a conference some 1,500 miles from home in Texas.

Not my favorite time.

Eventually, I found service, followed Harvard’s Twitter account, made my way to a bookstore (a bookstore is always a happy, safe place, right? Or is it that only English teachers think this…), and nervously waited as updates trickled out.

Here’s what I saw first. Not encouraging (especially when you don’t exactly know where you are in relation to these buildings).

After that, I received this update. At this point, I’m thinking through things like, would it be better to be on the bottom floor of this bookstore in case I need to get out? Seriously. Ridiculous, right? Hooray for my lizard brain being in rare form.

At this point, I decided it would be best to get on the T (public transportation in Boston) despite the fact that I would have to walk toward campus to do so.

From here, I made my way back to my hotel across town. Not until I entered my hotel room and called my wife did I breathe a sigh of relief.


Reflecting on this experience reminds me of two things:

  • It’s so easy to let anxiety take hold when you feel isolated in an unfamiliar environment.
  • I talk about dealing with anxiety way more than I actually experience it.

You see, I’m pretty comfortable at home.

I’m a middle class, white, male who works as an assistant principal in the same high school I taught in. If that weren’t enough, it also happens to be the same high school I attended in the same school district I attended K-12. I know it really, really well. And it’s comfortable. There are very few unknowns, and it’s easy for me to think that when I interact with others in the same space, everyone is having a similar experience at a similar level of comfort.

In that moment where I felt disconnected from people I trusted and unaware of the events happening around me, my anxiety shot through the roof. Finding myself alone, disconnected, and around the rumor of the threat of danger made me rethink how some of our students might experience school.

Sure, mine happened with the sound of sirens responding down the streets a couple of times a minute. What I felt as rumors of uncertainty circled is different than what the other people around me felt, and it’s clearly a different set of circumstances than what students may come across in schools. I certainly don’t mean to oversimplify either situation or to place value on which experience is worse for which individual. What I do mean to say is this: My experience with I perceived to be an imminent threat affected me in a lasting way. Regardless of the magnitude of the cause, when student (or even when teacher) anxiety is triggered, we get an adverse response. Whenever possible, we have to do whatever we can to help eliminate those stressors or help students self-regulate during those times of heightened anxiety.


In the moment, I could think through what I should do in response to the situation. Not 72 hours before, I heard Dr. Roy Baumeister talk about how decision fatigue impacts our ability to make our best choices. According to Baumeister, when we are making choices while depleted either from the volume of choices we’ve had to or due to the stress taken on during decision making, our choices bear one or more of these traits:

  • Postpone/avoid decision
  • Less compromise
  • Default option
  • Impulse, self-indulge
  • Irrational bias
  • Lower trust
  • Selfishness, unfairness

I won’t drag you though how I see each of these traits in my anxiety filled decisions, but believe me, they’re there. It’s frustrating for me to see that I had the information, but I couldn’t put it into use. I was sucked into this moment.

And it’s probably frustrating for me at some level because I don’t extend the benefit of the doubt as often as I should. Even if I get this right 4 out 5 times, I’d still leave too many students to work through their situations without support.

I say this as much to myself as to you: “Be generous with your beliefs about what’s driving student behavior. Provide them a safe place to regroup after missteps, and work to help them recognize stress and self-regulate during future situations.”

I’m hopeful that I’m more generous with my beliefs when I return to campus. I hope that I can provide a safe place for students to regroup and move forward throughout their days, and I hope that I don’t soon forget my own response in this experience.

Be generous


My stuff is small, and I want to acknowledge that. It felt significant in that moment, but as I write this—just 24 hours later—it’s passed. The stakes only amplify as the level of serious concern rises in these situations, and I’m mindful of that as I write this. I’m thankful it passed quickly and that the experience was enough to give me pause and remind me both how easy I have it and how crippling that combination of feelings can be.

I hesitate to generalize whether most experience more than that or not, but I’m comfortable stating that most experience more than what they’re letting on. I think it’s our job as educators to work to notice the big things and the little stressors for those on our campuses. It’s a big task, but what a worthwhile pursuit!

Before you leave this blog…

Take a moment to give thanks for where you find stability.

Take a moment to identify those you may have overlooked who routinely experience some instability.

Then take a moment to think through where you, even in the smallest ways, can provide stability and support for those around you.

Teaching Self-Control

TeachingSelf-ControlIn high school, I ran cross country and track, and during those experiences, I learned the value of pushing myself nearly  to the point of muscle failure. Our season ran from September through November (if we ran well enough to advance past the district level to the regional or state meets). I and my teammates spent a lot of time thinking about how to train in the smartest ways so that we would have enough stamina to outrun others on race day.

I loved it. The guys were great, running was great, and processing through how to each race was far more complicated than the “get out there and run as fast as you can” approach that some, maybe even many, took.

Any runner who has spent any time trying to get better has learned certain truths. It doesn’t take long to realize you get tired as you continue to exert at a higher and higher level for longer and longer. And all it takes is one race where you go out too quickly to remember that a smart racer will be smart about when he conserves energy and when he chooses to push the pace. Any runner knows that the best way to improve as a runner is to spend a lot of time running, getting better, and learning recognize and push your limits.

What I realize now (thanks to a keynote by Dr. Roy Baumeister at the Learning and the Brain Conference) is that those efforts were really an exercise in self-control. In fact, Baumeister says that self-control is like a muscle in the same way I considered running (ok, he may have said that first, but the ideas still apply to what I remember of distance running). Specifically, Baumesiter said that self-control is like a muscle. It gets tired after exertion, it wants to conserve energy at times (often so that energy is retained for future use), and that exercise increases strength.

What he had to say snapped into even sharper focus when he added that “Resisting temptations takes something away from our ability to persevere through the next challenge.”

TeachingSelf-Control (3)

Think about the factors that can impact a student’s ability to demonstrate self-control. We often think that self-control is a trait when reality is that it is a skill to be developed over time.

But that’s not how we always think.

We think some kids can behave and some kids can’t. Or maybe we think that some kids can behave and others just persistently choose not to (usually just to drive us crazy, right?).

I’m convinced that Baumeister is right. Self-control is like a muscle, and the more we test it, the closer it gets to failure.

So, what do we do?

I don’t have an answer for every student in every situation (and neither does anyone at the conference I’m at–which is both frustrating and reassuring all at once), but I’m wrestling with how to teach that to students. I really like the two new ideas that Baumeister provided. I’d like to share them here and see what we can think of about how these ideas apply to our efforts to teach self-control to our students.


First, he mentioned an article from the Wall Street Journal article  about Odell Beckham Jr.’s decision to not only keep from wearing out his dominant right hand, but also grow strength in that left hand by completing everyday tasks with it. “The Secret Left-Handed Life of Odell Beckham” (link) is a great example of someone who is wanting greater control of a part of himself. It’s worth noting that he is as good a receiver as the NFL has right now, so it’s not like he’s doing this because he can’t keep up on his own. He’s wanting to get better, and I can’t wait to find ways to package this for student viewing.

Part of me wishes he had a list of things we could to to help our students “use the other hand” to develop more resilience, but I think I’m happy the question is still out there. I’m still mulling this over myself, and I’m benefiting from the thought process.

Baumeister’s other example that really stuck with me centers around this image:


Here, Odysseus (or Zeus) is subjecting himself to temptation. Sure, he’s putting some constraints in place to help him keep controlled (tying himself to the mast of the ship), but there’s a better way. In Baumeister’s words, “Those with self control don’t do what Odysseus did here; they take a different way home.”

I love the image and how plain it makes the risks of the temptations that come at us.


The more I think about it, the more I think I’m convinced by Roy Baumeister’s compelling comment that there are similarities between working out a physical muscle and working out our self-control. That part is easy to nod along with, but the implications are significant.

Every coach knows that athletes will be pushed and will sometimes fail. Is that how we treat students who are being stretched in their ability to demonstrate self-control?


But that’s the task at hand. Teenagers experience a surge in brain plasticity during adolescence, and it’s our job to make sure we are helping stretch, grow, and cultivate students’ ability to demonstrate greater and greater self-control.


Let’s collaborate on this. How will you begin to put this into practice? What ways can you think of that help students to “use the other hand” or avoid the sirens on campus? I have a few ideas, but I’d love to hear what you think.

Leave a comment with an idea or some inspiration for others who are working to help teach self-control.