By Joan Richardson
Every Thursday night, I teach an American high school graduate how to read. Kita and I have worked together for two hours a week almost every week for 3½ years. That means that she has invested roughly 350 hours of face-to-face time with me plus a roughly equal number of hours at home in preparation for our tutoring sessions.
700 hours over three years. By any measure, that is a huge investment of time. After this intense effort, at age 36, Kita now reads at about a 5th-grade level. She’s made tremendous progress, but she still has enormous gaps in her knowledge because of all the years that she couldn’t read. But that hasn’t stopped her from making progress in her retail career. When the store that employed her was sold two years ago, she was on a short list of employees who were rehired immediately by the new owner. Since then, she’s had increasing responsibility, and now she’s part of a formal management training program.
Why promote someone who struggles to read? Because she has so-called noncognitive skills in abundance. She is punctual and faithful to her commitments. She is responsible. She is courteous but courageous about addressing employee issues — she is especially savvy about convincing young male employees to stop sagging, a blend of maternal experience, neighborhood knowledge, and sheer chutzpah. She is honest about what she knows and doesn’t know and acts with humility to correct every mistake. She is optimistic and hopeful, investing herself fully in a dream that she will read well enough someday to attend college. And, as her literacy work with me shows, she perseveres when she has a goal.
I contrast Kita with a woman I once worked with who has never managed to get any promotion. She is a very skilled editor, smart with words and capable of turning every sow’s ear into a silk purse. But she is often abusive with writers and to say she has poor relationships with colleagues would be an understatement. Years after I last worked with her, she lingers on in the same dead-end job. Deeply skilled, deeply flawed.
I hesitated to share Kita’s story because I feared some might see in it a message that social-emotional skills always trump hard academic learning. In fact, I don’t believe that’s the case. What I see instead is the intricate interplay between the two. So-called noncognitive skills cannot replace the need to learn the 3R’s and more. But they are essential skills for students who struggle at learning, if only to keep them moving toward a goal they may not yet see. But even the most brilliant student needs a reservoir of soft skills in order to be successful in life. Witness my editor friend.
Being able to honestly assess your skills at any stage of life is a challenge. In this society, acknowledging that you lack a skill — especially in something as basic as reading — and then stepping forward to do something about it requires courage and humility. Committing yourself to improving any skill requires perseverance and hopefulness. That applies whether an individual is attempting to improve upon a basic skill or boost a respectable skill to champion levels.
As I think about Kita and her evolution as a reader, I have no doubt that she will achieve her dream. She knows that she is in a marathon, not a sprint. She sees her path as clearly as anyone I have ever known, and she is more committed to her own learning than many who have come to it more easily.
I’m fairly certain that her family and her church were responsible for developing in her the soft skills that have carried her so far in life. That her schools did not build on those skills and teach her read when it had the chance is an American shame.