When my grandpa died, my grandma told me that she missed the small stuff. She had plenty of photo albums packed full of memories, but what she missed the most was waking up next to him in the morning. I remember visiting her on a hard afternoon. She had accidentally poured two cups of coffee and brought them into the family room and placed one next to his empty chair. She spent the next hour crying.

This moment had me rethinking what it means to live an epic life — which is ultimately why I created the following video:

It has me thinking about teaching. What if the epic classroom is actually humble? What if the most formative moments aren’t just the massive projects but also the subtle things that slowly add up to make a difference?

Case in point, about a year ago, I received a Facebook message from a former student. She sent me a snapshot of an essay she had written and the note I had written on the side that read, “You are an amazing writer. I hope you always continue to refine your work and cultivate your talent.”

She then described how her dad would often call her lazy and stupid and how this note felt like a lifeline. She described what it was like to be in college and to battle self-doubt and then she described how the teachers in her life had given her hope.

Here’s the crazy thing: She didn’t care about our epic projects. She didn’t write to tell me how much she enjoyed painting a mural or filming a documentary. What she remembered was something much smaller — two lines scribbled out in the margins of an essay that I had assumed would be tossed into a recycle bin.

I often go back to this Facebook message when I find myself getting overly self-critical. Every so often, I slip into a place where I only remember the mistakes — the times when I yelled at a class or embarrassed a student or taught things incorrectly or used practices I’m now against (like homework or tests). But this Facebook message reminds me that even in the midst of our flaws, good things happen. And it’s often in the long string of “little things” that we have a profound influence as teachers.

 

The Power of Little Things

Watch a keynote or visit a conference or check out social media and you’ll see a trend of celebrating massive projects. These are the times teachers go above and beyond and create something memorable for students. You’ll see people imploring teachers to do more and go the extra mile. And I get it. It can be powerful to create memories.

And yet . . .

There are a lot of powerful things that are small. It’s what happens when a kid learns phonics and gradually discovers the joy of reading. It’s what happens when a librarian helps kids find a new genre or author or book series. It’s what happens when kids engage in great discussions and write things that they enjoy writing and set up their own experiments in science. It’s what happens when a teacher talks to a lonely kid in the hallway. It’s what happens when kids get the chance to make their own decisions for the first time in school.

These aren’t the “go the extra mile” moments. Instead, they are the tiny, forgettable, humble things that teachers do on a daily basis. You won’t hear these stories at conferences or read about in education books. If anything, they seem to be routine. But what if those long, slow, steady rituals are actually where epic teaching happens? Don’t get me wrong. The memorable projects are great. However, transformation often looks ordinary, slow, and even banal in the moment.

My friend William Chamberlain has been encouraging people on Twitter to share the small stuff using the hash tag . I love this idea of openly celebrating the small things that make a big difference in schools.

Looking for more? Check this out.

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John Spencer

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

2 Comments

  • I love this post. It’s the small stuff that makes me love teaching. I love the moments when I get to have honest conversations with students about what’s happening in their lives. I celebrate times like when I watched one of the “cool kids” get up from his lunch table to sit with the lonely kid whose best friend was absent that day. I even treasure the time I was overwhelmed by my life crying in front of my class, and they comforted me without even knowing what I was going through. Schools and classrooms are extraordinary places full of amazing people. I wish the world knew that.

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