Small: A Word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching

Couldn’t sleep. Went out for a walk about 3:45 a.m. The silent air had a soothing coolness about it. I have always found walking therapeutic. And though I can’t as yet power walk, my five mile, one hour of brisk walking frees my inner voice. As I was walking this morning, I was particularly conscious of each step. Each step is so critical in my walk. Each step is always a prayer that makes my body healthier and my life richer. Each step is an important part of my eyes-wide-open meditation-on-the-move. Each step heightens my senses, renews my spirit, awakens my self-awareness, and sharpens my awareness of things and people around me. The regular rhythm of movement helps me reflect, clears my head, and puts me in touch with my deeper feelings and values. That step gathering hour on the pre-dawn road gives me time to listen to my life and gather perspective on it. I always seem to come back from these walks in a relaxed and peaceful frame of mind with a fresh perspective on whatever it is that’s going on in my life. Equally important, I come back with a renewed commitment and resolve to stay the course no matter how difficult things get.

“Each step….” You know so often so many of us look at the great journey and forget the importance of each small step of which that journey is composed. I guess I was concentrating on those two words because of a telephone conversation I had the other day. A past student, and aspiring teacher, and I were talking about the critical role “each step,” both figuratively and metaphorically, plays in making a difference. Here are bits and pieces of our exchange. Please don’t hold me to each word.

“I just read a bunch of your Random Thoughts….I had to call you….I want to make a big difference, too,” she said in a tone that was almost a plea. “Do you think it’s important to want to do that?”

“Yes,” I quickly answered. “I think it sets you on fire. And, as long as you’re on fire, you won’t burnout. The more you have meaning in your teaching, the more hits you’re able to take, the less disillusioned you’ll be, the less stressed you’ll become.”

“How can I do it? How can I make that great difference in someone’s life?”

“Start with your life. By making small differences every day in your everyday life,” I quickly answered. “You’ll slowly change you and then those around you. You can’t change what you do unless you change who you are.”

“That will take a long time.”

“Sure will. I’ve been working on changing for the last fifteen years and will keep on doing it until the day they bury me. You don’t want to hurry it.”

“I am in a hurry.”

“Doggone, you’re only twenty-six. It’s like you have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. Don’t be in a hurry. Please. You remind me of the Zen story of a martial arts student who went to his teacher and said earnestly, ‘I am devoted to studying your martial system. How long will it take me to master it?’ The teacher’s replied casually, ‘Ten years.’ Impatiently, the student answered, ‘But I want to master it faster than that. I will work very hard. I will practice everyday, ten or more hours a day if I have to. How long will it take then?’ The teacher thought for a moment, ’20 years.’”

“I don’t get it.”

“Don’t go for the home run on the first swing. Trying too hard can often be as unproductive as not trying at all. When you get too caught up in your efforts, you get caught up in yourself. You can lose track of why you’re making the efforts. Take the time, again and again in the midst of it all, to remember why you do what you do…..The more you want to hurry it, the more you don’t really care about it or care to do it carefully, and the more you really want to get on to other things…. Swing easy. A single will do….Real progress will come at the pace at which you can give yourself fully and sincerely to the effort. You’ve got to focus; you’ve got to be aware; you’ve got to see the details. If you attempt to rush the process, you may accumulate some meager tokens of success, but you will fall short of achieving real success itself….It took you a while to get into your present habits. It’s not going to take a magical finger snap to break the old habits. Be patient with yourself. To learn to make a difference you have a lot of unlearning to do. Move deliberately. Don’t blur things by rushing. Take care of the unexciting, tedious, mundane and you’ll find them exciting. You’ll find it easier to be open-minded, to feel engaged, to be ready to see and listen and learn and change. If you take your time, if you move slowly in small steps, if you don’t set limits on yourself, if you keep your eyes and ears open, if you’re curious, you’ll feel a funny buzz of possibility: that you can do almost anything; go off in any direction you choose; that everyone is worthy of your time and effort. Making a difference is almost always the result of small efforts repeated over and over again, multiplied again and again and again. It’s just a matter of putting enough of those small, simple actions together in the same direction for the same cause. That’s the composition of the ‘great difference.’ There are no short cuts!”

“But, when are small steps big?” she asked.

“Ask each drop of rain that question as it slowly erodes the hardest rock even though you can’t see it chiseling away. Its answer would be the same as mine: ‘always.’ You have to learn to constantly and incessantly smell the delicious bouquet of everydayness in the classroom, marvel at each student’s complexity, and have a boundless fascination each day with each student as if you were an adventurer with an insatiable curiosity.”

“But, what’s makes them going to make the difference?”

“You. Your cause. Your purpose. Your vision. Your meaning. You caring. Without any of these you’ll have no chance of having an effect. The purpose, a meaning, a passion that you are driven to express and fulfill; staying guided by that purpose, staying connected to that passion, keeping on listening to that purpose.”

“How do I get there?”

“By being totally where you are now. By stop thinking about it. Look, it’s great to want to make a difference, but you’ve got to develop it from where you are now. If you’re constantly wishing that you were somewhere else, or that other things were happening, you’ll miss a lot the opportunities where you are now. When you’re in another zone, you’re zoned out and whatever you do loses much of its impact. It’s great to dream, to plan, to aspire, to reach for new and improved circumstances. And yet the way to successfully do whatever it is you want to do is by giving it everything you’ve got in the place where you now find yourself. Those small opportunities are everywhere, and you don’t have to beg or plead with anyone to give you access to them. You simply have to see the potential they represent, and then go for it.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Let’s do it this way. Do you think you’re a fully difference-making teacher the second you first stepped into the classroom?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I had a lot to learn.”

“Do you think you’re a difference-making teacher now?”

“No. That’s why I called you.”

“Do you think what you’ve got to learn is going to be quick and easy?”

“No.”

“Bingo! Now, start doing what you tell students. Stop being in a hurry. No short cuts. No easy way. No magic wand. Creating something of value takes time and effort. The thing to do get in a rhythm to make that effort, make that effort, make that effort, make that effort. Getting beyond the difficult challenges will require persistence and diligence. The thing to do is to keep going. You’ve heard me say that every great journey begins with a step. Well, then, when you seek that big destination, start with and continue with the small changes, the small steps. They are the ones that will most reliably get you there. Be patient with yourself. In every moment, in every situation, there is some small detail you can attend to, some small challenge that you can embrace. Make a habit of always giving whatever you can, and you’ll reach the point where you can achieve whatever you wish. Baby steps aren’t babyish. Small steps aren’t small….There’s no such thing as a small and insignificant step in any of that great journey. The smallest steps, like supposed insignificant snow flakes that gather into a massive blizzard, gather into that great journey. No, the smallest change, the smallest step, can make the biggest difference and make the journey great. Keep in mind, most big deals are little more than the result of a bunch of those supposedly inconsequential ‘no big deals.’”

“But, that’s all you write about in your Random Thoughts that I get, those great changes that occur in a flash, those great differences you’ve made in the lives of others,” he retorted

“That’s all? Do I? Really? You’re only remembering a few occasional ones out of the hundreds I’ve shared over the years and screening out all the others that record my ever-evolving journey of small steps,” I reminded her. “Maybe it’s just that I’ve taken more small steps longer than you have.”

I described to her my grand-daughter’s attempts to begin walking. Jacqueline is not suddenly jumping up and sprinting a world record-breaking hundred yard dash. She’s not in one deciding moment leaping over a tall building in a single bound. She’s not smoothly gliding down a model’s runway. No, she’s gathering up steam. She’s practicing, taking risks, practicing, taking risks, practicing, taking risks, practicing. She is teeter-tottering, slowly learning to balance standing up, more slowly learning to balance on the move, being awkward, developing the necessary coordination of all parts of her body, gathering courage, gaining confidence, building up her muscles, even taking a bruise here and there. She falls; she gets up, falls, grabs a hold, and gets up. She’s not letting anything stop her. Each day, each hour, each minute it has become a routine: getting up; holding on; reaching out; letting go; bravely taking a tottering, awkward step here; falling back on her heavily padded, diaper protected butt, getting up; holding on; reaching out; letting go; taking a tottering step there. Not one step is ordinary. Every one is filled with the endless possibilities of taking a meandering walk down a path in awe of nature, of taking up the challenge of hiking up a mountain, of jumping on a trampoline, of dancing with a partner, of racing into a burning building to save someone’s life, of winning an Olympic god medal, of taking her own children to the park. Each step is one small step for a little girl and one giant leap for humankind. Each small, hesitant step is a small, positive change that will profoundly influence her world, as well as that of her parents, me and my Susan, and all around her. When she made that small change, she influenced how she and all around her will live each coming day. And, that is no small change!

“Want to make it big?” I asked her.

“I told you I do….

“Then, let me repeat myself. Learn to walk! I can’t tell you empathically enough, give yourself time; go for the small stuff. You, I, all of us far more capable of what I’ll call the ‘triumph of the little step’ than we are of the giant leap. It could be something as simple as choosing to start each day with a confident smile and an arousing ‘wow’ and a determined ‘yes’ instead rather than a dampening ‘ho-hum’ or a paralyzing ‘yuk.’ Or, you could greet a member of the cleaning crew with a bright “hello” instead to seeing through him or her as if she were made of cellophane. Or, you could decide that something which had always irked you about a student you just won’t let get to you anymore. Or, you can notice something different about a student and compliment him or her rather than placing him or her in the shadows among the unnoticed. Even one small change can have a large positive impact on your life because the benefits of that small change are repeated day after day. Keep adding smaller, positive changes from time to time, and the results can be truly incredible and the big difference can happen….Then, see small is big and make what is supposedly small into something big!” Think small. Find the small. Do the possible small. If you think making a difference only in terms of the monumental efforts, giant leaps, hole-in-ones, ‘hail Mary’ touchdown passes, and ‘Hollywood moments,’ you’ll miss most of the best possibilities to make a difference. In the quiet, ordinary days, while doing routine, ordinary things, the real and lasting stuff grows and grows. It’s in the smallest moments that comes the biggest opportunities. In the most ordinary events and efforts and acts come the most extraordinary possibilities for joy, fulfillment, accomplishment, and difference. That’s when you realize how truly extraordinary it is to be a teacher. It’s the ‘everyday’ when you can most fully express the perseverance, dedication, faith, hope, support, encouragement, seeing, listening, all that is the substance and goodness of who you are. The more fully you put yourself into the ordinary moments, the more to take the ordinary moments less for granted, the more you are aware of them, the more value they will bring. And, when you find the value of the small acts and simple moments, you’ll find the value will richly fill you and you’ll treasure them. They’re easily accomplished, but they will steadily take you to where you can make the big difference. There’s something else I want us to discuss, but for now ‘small’ with do.”

“Small!” Now that I’ve thought of our conversation, that’s a good word for my Dictionary of Good Teaching. I’ll send it to Kenny.

Make it a good day.

–Louis–

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