What is it they say about politicians?
"They will say anything to get elected."
Well, it is that time of year when many educators will be tempted to say anything to get their classes and campuses to listen. We are going to make a lot of promises over the next few weeks, make some big shows of what we intend to do, but I want to caution you:
It is not in the big things that we make the most impact, but in how all the small things will add up.
I am not against the big things- they have their place. But what too often happens in the world and in education is we make a promise or put on a big show on day one, but after that we never do anything like that again. The big thing becomes a sort of island in the midst of an ocean of the small things, and it does not connect with people. Here is an example.
I am a huge proponent of student voice, as anyone who reads this blog knows. A big thing for that would be to host a student panel where I got ideas on how to shape instruction and develop class environment and design. I would tell the students they get to have a hand in how they are educated. I tell them their voice matters.
Then from day two on, all their suggestions and ideas are ignored.
That's a big, glaring example. For most of us, it is more like we do some fun team building games on day one, and then never do them again.
If you want to go big, you have to maintain the small in the day to day. I believe there are two ways in which the big things can and do work in education- be they at the classroom, campus or district level.
Each year, our district has a Kickoff- some districts call it Convocation. It sets the vision for the year ahead by celebrating accomplishments from the past year and outstanding students and teachers. It works when that vision then becomes a driving force for the year. One of the best examples was our Kickoff two years ago when the district unveiled it's You Matter campaign. The very next day, our district-wide professional development was all about teacher choice of six sessions that were led by district employees. Both were big events, but they had an impact because they set up all the small things. Our district employee page still posts pictures of staff members that have been nominated for the You Matter Hall of fame. We have You Matter extended sessions of popular classes offered at the beginning of the year. We have You Matter post-its that can be shared with staff and students.
All these small things started with a big thing, but they have been maintained.
If you go big to start things off, you better make sure to engage in the small things from then on out. Because if you lay out a vision and do not keep to it, the people (students and teachers alike) will wander from the focus. There is significant research to the effect that a big assembly does not have much long term impact if there is no follow-up in the day to day.
Ten year old me sat in front of the television watching a bunch of people standing on a wall, waving flags and celebrating. Then they started tearing the Berlin Wall down. I had little understanding of the Cold War beyond James Bond movies and Rocky IV, but I knew this was significant and real, and not just because Tom Brokaw told me it was. Twenty plus years later, as a US History teacher, I read a book about the Cold War. That wall coming down was a big thing that was made possible by all the small things leading up to it. Pockets of protests, years of negotiations, and a few accidental little coincidences and mistakes and a people were set free.
Sometimes we start our year with a promise- do you work and there will be a prize at the end. I find the Culmination big thing to be more beneficial because there is a build of expectancy. In my class, we make coffee cup goals on day one, and at the end of the semester we have a coffee/hot chocolate day to celebrate progress towards those goals. Its a big event that students look forward to and we build towards throughout the semester. But if I do not remind the students of their goals, or set the expectation before them and hold to those daily small things, then the big event has little meaning.
The Big Small Things
Over the summer, I have really begun to evaluate the importance of follow through. If I make a promise, I need to keep it. At the end of last school year, I said I was going to write a book over the summer. I have, but it's not done. Yet. It's close, and I plan to finish draft one in the next week or so, but I will finish it.
Have you ever been promised something by a teacher or student or administrator and it did not happen? It didn't feel good, did it? Now remember that our students hear our promises and our "Big Things" loud and clear on day one. We cannot be like those stereotypical politicians who will say anything to get elected. We must be diligent in all the small things that make our commitments to students and fellow educators come about.