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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Teach the Soft Side of Business

It's not all a zero-sum game.
By Alexandra R. Moses

This how-to article accompanies the feature "The Bucks Start Here: A Hands-On Approach to Personal Finance."

It's always the little things that make the difference. True business education includes the soft skills, such as working well with others, that many employers say young workers lack. Teachers provided these tips on training students for the conference room:

Create rules to get along.

Most subjects are conducive to a group activity, whether it's a complicated history project or a one-off science experiment. Turn those small-group projects into lessons on teamwork. Laurie Fraser, a marketing teacher at Lincoln East High School, in Lincoln, Nebraska, takes a little class time to teach her students what it means to work in a group. Before embarking on the activity, each group decides how to delegate the work, who will be the leader, and when to meet.

They also have to plan for how they'll defuse conflicts. Fraser says this step can be hard because students don't think they'll get into disputes with their friends. Especially if the activity is a single project, make it clear to your students that only one idea will win the day, so they have to agree as a team. Fraser adds that this strategy forces each student to negotiate to get his or her idea on the table -- and to acknowledge when somebody else has a better idea.

Tackle time management.

Fraser has her groups plan out the time they can work together on their projects, accounting for scheduling conflicts like sports events. Proper time management helps everyone stay on task and avoid the stress of the last-minute scramble. Try this: Have your students take out their planners at the start of each class and pencil in time to complete that day's homework. When a student falters -- say, the time set aside for geography homework got taken up by unexpected chores at home -- it's an opportunity to teach him or her how to troubleshoot and make adjustments when things don't go as planned.

Practice makes perfect.

Greg Fisher, an economics and government teacher at the California Academy of Math and Science, in Carson, California, has his students do a number of outside-the-classroom presentations. But before they present one for real, they rehearse it in front of their classmates, complete with the business attire they plan to wear. Next time your students give class presentations, set up a system for peer assessment. For example, in Fisher's government class, five students at a time track the news for a week and report it to the class. The rest of the students score the presentations. The benefits: Each group performs better than the last because they see where other students went wrong.

Shake a few hands.

Handshakes offer a key first impression, and students might not have any experience with proper execution. Have your students pair up, first imitating a few bad handshakes -- too limp, too strong, and too long -- to illustrate the wrong way to do it. Then have them practice a firm, lightly enthusiastic handshake, and give each other feedback on how it felt.

Put them in charge.

It's one thing to work well with others, but employers also want workers who are responsible and who can communicate clearly and confidently. To help advance those skills, Fraser has her marketing students invite speakers to give talks in the school's common area. They not only have to make the cold call to a prospective speaker; once the event is arranged, they also have to compose an email to invite other classes and are required to stand up to introduce the speaker to the audience.

Shy students can practice making a cold call with an adult they know, like a parent or a teacher, and write out a script in case they get nervous. Here's a tip: The next time you want to bring in a guest speaker, have your students handle the details. You can also consider a career day for which students decide who they want to hear from, then extend the invitations and come up with the questions to ask.

The results, Fraser says, are worth it. "When we sort of open the floodgates, they realize they've got to be more responsible when they're in charge," she adds. "My favorite thing is watching that student who is shy and scared take that first step."

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