I was lucky enough to see Peter Johnston (Choice Words and Opening Minds) speak at a conference in York, PA, and he said many things that strike me as so relevant to our everyday interactions with students.
One comment he made resonated immediately: he said the small moments of classroom life change everything. As teachers, we plan for that perfect lesson, that perfect unit of study. We assess our students’ needs to inform our instruction. These things take time, and they should: careful planning and use of formative assessment to inform our teaching build independent learners.
But these aren’t the only things that matter. Perhaps if we rethink some of the small moments of our teaching, we can see when we actually had those breakthroughs with specific students: did the breakthroughs come because of careful lesson plans, or because of our relationships built across dozens of small moments in a school year?
When Peter mentioned small moments, I immediately thought of Jonathan, one of my fifth grade students from 14 years ago. I live and work in Denver, and in my district, if it snows in the morning, we often have a late start. Late start means teachers must arrive on time, but students arrive 90 minutes later. That’s the theory. Sometimes, due to work issues, parents have no choice and they must drop their students off at the regular time. Driving to work in bad weather on days like these, teachers often hope that they will actually have some extra time to plan, and that none of their students will show up early. I confess I was one of those teachers on this particular day in the winter of 2002. At about 8:30, I thought I was in the clear and began planning and working in earnest – and then the office called: “Mark, Jonathan is here. I guess his dad had to drop him off on the way to work. Sorry.”
I confess that I was not too happy – I was hoping for another hour of work time. But I made a decision to just chat with Jonathan and have him help me in the copy room. When he walked in, I didn’t repeat my typical speech at times like these: “You know, this is a late start day – you shouldn’t be here yet. Make sure to tell your parents to check the news or the website on snowy mornings.” This wasn’t Jonathan’s fault, and truly, it wasn’t his parents fault either. Jonathan was a fifth grader. His parents had to work, snow or no snow. So I welcomed him and asked if he wanted to help me get ready for the day. He smiled and said, “Sure!”
Jonathan was typically very quiet. He never said much, and he didn’t have a lot of friends because he had recently moved from another school. To be honest, I didn’t really know him well – until that day.
I had almost an hour to talk with Jonathan. After a few minutes, he did all the talking and I just listened. He told me all about how his dad was trying to quit smoking and even though it made his dad pretty cranky, the good news was that there was a lot of chocolate around the house: apparently his dad replaced chocolate for nicotine whenever he tried to quit smoking. Jonathan also told me about his puppy, and how he was trying to train it without much success. Those small moments of me listening and learning about Jonathan made a huge difference. I was thankful for the late start. Rather than chastise Jonathan for arriving early, I welcomed him and listened to whatever he wanted to talk about, and much of it had nothing to do with school. After that, Jonathan participated a bit more in class, and he started producing more work over time. The breakthrough had nothing to do with careful lesson plans, and everything to do with an opportunity to get to know one child a bit better.
Simple, small moments with our students build relationships because they help our students to trust us, to view us as someone who cares about their lives beyond school.
During Peter’s presentation, I started to think of other small moments in my teaching career:
- The time I laughed when my students told me about the dance party they had when a sub fell asleep at my desk during math class. Obviously, they played the music at a really low volume so as not to wake the sub. My sixth graders kept saying “Don’t be mad, Mr. O! He woke up and caught us dancing, but we weren’t mean! We were just having fun. And plus, HE fell asleep!” How could I not laugh?
- The time Zach moved his desk from across the room to a space right next to my guided reading group. Zach was one of those students who was often disruptive. He had a reason for moving closer to the group: “You won’t have to talk too loud to get mad at me if I mess up. I’m right next to you now.” How could I not laugh and welcome him to sit right there?
- The time I heard one of my third graders taking bets before my latest Patricia Polacco read aloud: “It’s Patricia Polacco!” one boy whispered to the girl sitting next to him. “I bet you a dollar he’s gonna cry at the end!” She refused to bet, so he turned to the boy behind him: “Wanna bet?” But no one would take the bait. They all whispered: “Of course he’s gonna cry. He always does when he reads her books.”
There are so many other moments like these. When I reflect on my many years of teaching, in fact, it is often the small moments I remember. I hope, of course, that my careful planning, teaching, and assessing paid off. But I know which small moments made a difference. So perhaps, as you relax this summer, you can reflect on those small moments that made a difference for your students. And as the next school year begins, look for the opportunity to show students that you are human – you listen, you laugh, you cry, but most of all, that you care.