The Importance of Intangible Talents

As the end of the school year fast approaches, teachers start to focus on final assessment. Too often, in the teaching profession, both educators and their students measure progress by “the almighty mark”. Today, I want to reflect on the importance of viewing students more holistically and suggesting that both teachers and students work through an assessment process that gives important consideration to the intangible qualities that we all have.


The idea of focusing on this important theme was indeed a collaborative family endeavour. It started with our younger son who is working as a computer engineer in an American software development company. He recently told me how his colleagues were saddened to learn that one of their engineering team members was “poached” by another firm. Apparently this happens frequently in the IT industry, where technical skills are in high demand and companies regularly entice perspective employees from other firms.

When this individual approached his management team, indicating that he had a “better offer” with another firm, a decision was made to let him go. The remaining staff members were disappointed that management did not appear to negotiate to keep him. Rather than focus exclusively on his talents in programming, they overlooked (in the eyes of his colleagues) the important intangible qualities that this person demonstrated. Rather than just being friends with his team-members in the programming section, he had important social qualities that allowed him to mix equally-well with individuals in all departments within the company. Furthermore, he was the catalyst that organized activities for all company members on weekends and outside regular work hours. Our son felt that this individual’s social endeavours, which fostered a special camaraderie and support for colleagues both at work as well as after-hours, had a very positive spin on the way many of the employees functioned and that the company benefited indirectly from this supportive intangible quality.

When I discussed this situation with our elder son, who is in a management position with a local Winnipeg firm, he said that it is very important to be aware of the “intangibles” that all people bring to the work environment. As educators, we know how we welcome the support of those who light up the room with their presence, willingly share suggestions, tips and resources and are always there to support us.

Let me illustrate the importance of intangibles by showcasing the unique activities that Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield demonstrated during his recent visit to the International Space Station (ISS) from December 19, 2012 to May 13, 2013. Although I believe that Commander Hadfield is an outstanding astronaut, I’m sure there were others who could have acted as commander and carried out related duties in a responsible fashion. However, in my mind, it was the extra “intangibles” that Chris Hadfield demonstrated that make him such an outstanding ambassador for the space program. For a start, Forbes described  Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. With over 930,000 Twitter followers as of May 2013, together with his innovative YouTube videos, Hadfield was welcomed into conversations around many dinner tables. Whether Hadfield was providing insights into his duties Controlling the ISS, or the more personal daily hygienic routines of How To Brush Your Teeth in Space, or the challenges of using The Space Toilet, he shared information through amazing videos in a relaxed, informative manner with which we all could identify.

As an educator, I was particularly engaged in learning as Hadfield shared his “space experiment videos” which often answered questions posed by students. Although they ranged from the more simplistic How do you use Math in Space? to those involving the effects of zero gravity such as Can you cry in Space? or What happens when you wring out a wet wash cloth in Space?, Hadfield engaged his YouTube audience members through his short and informative videos. The culmination of Hadfield’s intangible talents were demonstrated in the following innovative “space to earth” musical collaboration with Ed Robertson of the Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks singing “I.S.S. – Is Somebody Singing”:

Chris Hadfield and Barenaked Ladies: I.S.S. (Is Somebody Singing)

Undoubtedly, the collaborative endeavour shown in this video is literally “out of this world”. Yet Hadfield continued to push the envelope and engaged close to a million students from across Canada and around the world to help him simultaneously sing “Is Somebody Singing” as part of the Music Monday initiative.

Obviously, Hadfield’s skills and talents were developed over a lifetime. However, we as teachers, need to be cognizant of the hidden “intangible talents” of all our students. To illustrate this process, I turn to experiences that my wife, who taught elementary children for 32 years, has shared with me. Like many educators, that I have had the privilege to work with, she was an extremely dedicated teacher. However, in my mind, her greatest “intangible talent” was her ability to foster self-worth and confidence within all her students. Students in her classes knew they were part of an important classroom family, where inclusion was reinforced on a daily basis. Rather than focus exclusively on “marks”, she made certain that her Special Needs students knew that they were indeed “special” and that they all had hidden talents that others needed to appreciate.

When preparing to write this blog post, I was discussing with my sister my belief that all students have “intangibles” that teachers need to recognize. After mentioning my wife’s passion for finding the hidden talents in her students, it was my sister who asked if I had ever heard the message about “Johnny the Bagger”?

When I admitted that I was unaware of this story, she suggested I search the Internet to learn how a young man was able to use his “intangible talents” to foster goodwill and develop a sense of community.

The following true story is told by Barbara Glanz:

A few years ago, I was hired by a large supermarket chain to lead a customer service program – to build customer loyalty.

During my speech I said, “Every one of you can make a difference and create memories for your customers that will motivate them to come back. How? Put your personal signature on the job.

Think about something you can do for your customer to make them feel special – a memory that will make them come back.”

About a month after I had spoken, I received a call from a nineteen year-old bagger named Johnny.

He proudly informed me that he was a Down Syndrome individual and told me his story.

“I liked what you talked about!” he said, “but at first I didn’t think I could do anything special for our customers.

After all, I’m just a bagger.

“Then I had an idea!” Johnny said.

“Every night after work, I’d come home and find a thought for the day.”

“If I can’t find a saying I like,” he added, “I just think one up!”

When Johnny had a good “Thought for the Day”, his dad helped him set it up on the computer and print multiple copies.

Johnny cut out each quote and signed his name on the back. Then he’d bring them to work the next day.

“When I finished bagging someone’s groceries, I put my thought for the day in their bag and say, Thanks for shopping with us.”

It touched me to think that this young man – with a job most people would say is not important – had made it important by creating precious memories for all his customers.

A month later the store manager called me…

“You won’t believe what happened. When I was making my rounds today, I found Johnny’s checkout line was three times longer than anyone else’s!

It went all the way down the frozen food aisle. So I quickly announced, ‘We need more cashiers; get more lanes open!’ as I tried to get people to change lanes. But no one would move.

They said, ‘No, it’s okay – we want to be in Johnny’s lane – we want his ‘Thought for the Day.’”

The store manager continued, “It was a joy to watch Johnny delight the customers.”

“I got a lump in my throat when one woman said, ‘I used to shop at your store once a week, but now I come in every time I go by, because I want to get Johnny’s ‘Thought for the Day.’”

A few months later, the manager called me again…

Johnny has transformed our store.

Now when the floral department has a broken flower or unused corsage, they find an elderly woman or a little girl and pin it on them.”

Everyone’s having a lot of fun creating memories.

Our customers are talking about us… they’re coming back, and bringing their friends.

A wonderful spirit of service spread throughout the entire store… and all because Johnny chose to make a difference!

Johnny’s idea wasn’t nearly as innovative as it was loving. It came from the heart – it was real. That’s what touched his customers, his peers… and those who read this story.

Great service comes from the heart…

Will you be a Johnny today?

In summary, I encourage educators to pay particular attention to their students and to seek out and identify the powerful “intangible talents” that each student has. Furthermore, by modelling your own “intangibles”, be it your positive outlook, your compassion, your energy, your sense of humour, your ability to focus on assets rather than disabilities, your support of colleagues, or your gift of being a good listener, you will demonstrate to your students how an individual can be recognized as much more than a good teacher … namely, a great teacher.

Lastly, I feel that it is so very important that I acknowledge the “intangible talents” of my immediate family, who have provided me with the important ideas and insights that I have shared with you.

Take care & keep smiling 🙂

Credits: – Flickr – Creative Commons image “Today I am mostly …” by Danny Nicholson

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