Sweat the Small Stuff. Here’s Why.

For all the esoteric philosophical ramblings we may diverge on, Vena Cava is about one thing: Returning to the Heart of Education, specifically at the high school level. The way that we do that is through relationships. Education, as a whole, is about relationships.

If education, conceived as it is in the States today, was not about human relationships, then we would not have teachers in classrooms. Think about it! We could easily have every school in the country standardized to a single curriculum laid out perfectly in an online database, one that even included built-in options and choices of courses (when appropriate), and have students fill up computer-laden rooms to learn and be educated at their own pace on their individual computer. We could even have live humans available with expertise in each subject should any student have trouble figuring out where they were going wrong with what they were learning. These live human tutors would be trained in diagnosing the issue, so that they can redirect the pupil back to the computer program precisely where they were messing up to learn it correctly. Why waste the money on individual teachers in every classroom, right?

But the matter of fact is that we don’t do that – probably at least in part because that’s not the way we have done things in the past, but also because it takes an exceptionally motivated student to actually learn something from a computer when they are in high school*. Since going back into the same old rant over The Great Technology Debate would be both tedious and trite, let’s discuss the nuance that is ‘relationships’ in education.

To begin, let’s just make sure we are on the same page: grades or standardized test scores mean far less towards predicting a person’s future success than does the answer to the question: “did I have a parent, teacher, coach, mentor, or some adult presence in my life that I felt cared about me?”. Gallup polls have suggested this to be the case; Google has explicitly stated that in their experience, GPA does not predict an employee’s effectiveness; and in Gallup’s survey of more than 2,500 school superintendents, “[they] found that only 5% strongly agree that a high GPA is the best predictor of success in college, and only 6% strongly agree that high SAT and ACT scores are the best predictor.” The point is that we know that having a person in your life that cares about your future success and encourages you to shoot for your big dreams matters.

Now, you may be thinking that the point of this article is to say we should stop caring about GPA or academic rigor, and that we should instead focus just on loving our students. This is not the case. It is far too easy today to fall into the ‘progressive education trap’ – to understand that caring about your students is vastly important, and to begin to think that if you just love them at all times and make sure they like you back, you are doing everything you need to do in order to ensure their future success. I will argue that caring for a student does not equate to making sure they are always feeling successful, happy, or that they outwardly show that they like you. Once again think about it: imagine someone who loves you. Does that person always like you? (If your answer was yes, you must have been referring to a spouse of less than six months). Just as we discussed in On Compassion, it is important to recognize that caring about someone who is not yet fully developed (and often for people who are fully developed) does not mean doing what’s wanted in the moment. It means doing what’s needed in the long-run. And that can get tricky.

This is where ‘Sweating the Small Stuff’ comes into play. Presuming we are in the position that we care about our students deeply, but that we also hold our students to high standards of accountability, we assume the position of a balancing act. The good news is that this balancing act is moving forward… and just as we learn to ride a bicycle, the idea of balancing on just one set of wheels can become not so difficult as we first imagined. Maybe we can even get to the point where we ‘cut loose’ a bit and roost a corner or whip a jump… if you get my drift (sorry, a little mountain bike humor there).

When we are talking about Sweating the Small Stuff in relationships, we are talking about the finer points of this balancing act: holding high standards and expectations while still showing that you care, can laugh, and can have fun; conveying that you feel the impact this argument over expectations is having on your relationship, but maintaining a love for the person; transferring a set of values and moral standards even in the face of contemporary cultural pressures that fly in the face of those values while acknowledging the importance of those cultural influences on a teenager. Think about it this way: you have probably had many friends in your life, most of whom you interact with in slightly different ways. If you have a friend who is caring, makes you laugh, makes you get outside of your comfort zone in positive ways, and is an all-around joy to be close with, you are far more likely to overlook the fact that they always show up 20 minutes late to events you have planned together. Sure, it might annoy you occasionally, but this friend has so much to offer that we can almost come to love them for being the spacey person who is so loving that we overlook their complete lack of a functioning mental time-table. When people are excited about what you bring to the table as a person, they can overlook the small stuff.

Now let’s take this example to a bigger field. As an educator in the 21st century (or just adult in a field outside of education), you have likely worked on multiple teams, if not in multiple different organizations. Depending on the team you are on or the organization you are in, you will have had different experiences that changed your motivations or feel for the team. When you are on a team or in an organization that feels as if it has a common purpose and positive energy surrounding that purpose, you can overlook the small stuff. Imagine working in a school where the Principal comes by every classroom, every day, and says to each teacher “wow, look at the way you interact with those kids! You are doing an amazing job of earning their respect!” or “woah, this is SO COOL that you are engaging your kids in a math project that involves them growing their own salads that can be turned into healthy lunch items when they study in your room. Dang! Keep it up.” Compare this now to the Principal that you see once a month at Staff Meeting and during your annual evaluation, where they tell you about a hundred things you need to be better at in order to be a more ‘highly effective’ teacher. In which environment are you going to be able to handle some critical feedback more effectively? In which environment are you going to let it slide a little bit more – overlook it and change your plans – when the official calendar is published with a small mistake on the date of an important after-school event that you need to attend, but because of the mistake you scheduled a dinner with your close non-work friends?

The same thing happens in our classrooms. Obviously we hold high expectations, but in doing so we are also hoping to be that former principal rather than the latter. We are hoping to, on a daily basis, hand out compliments and ‘atta boys’ at a higher rate than our critical feedback points. We are hoping to laugh with our students, even when we do hand out critical feedback! To give an example, I have a student who I get along with well. Last year I remember a distinct moment where he came to ask me a question with earbuds in is ears; students know my thoughts on People>Technology, even though culture teaches them differently. I reacted very sternly. “Get those things out of your ears and completely away if you expect to talk to me.” His eyes went wide and he froze. I took a step back and waited. He took them out and put them away, still feeling scolded. That’s when I started talking like a maniac with clenched teeth and pretending to beat him up, “Freakin’ teenagers these days, I’m just gonna set them straight with some punches.” He knew me well enough to let a smile and laugh come back to him, and then I told him “Seriously though Pat, you know that people are more important than our technologies, always. Make it your thing to always show them the utmost respect over our devices, even when culture is making it seem like it’s fine to completely insulate ourselves from others. You will be a better person for it.”

Obviously this short example doesn’t convey the complete picture. This sort of an interaction is certainly unconventional for a math teacher, but by creating a classroom in which care for others as well as consistent positive feedback about what is happening that’s really cool (and there’s always cool things happening in a classroom, even when we are frustrated because we’re not getting our way with the entire class), we can get students to the point where they don’t sweat the small stuff. The stuff like when we take longer to grade a paper or test because we had a busy weekend, or when we move a fun science lab back on the calendar because we didn’t cover everything we thought we would, or when we don’t curve a test because we know that we covered all of that material well, and we suspect and tell our students that we don’t think they really studied… and then we ask them honestly, did they?

There are many ways to begin on this adventure of creating a classroom culture that has enough positive energy and purpose in it to allow students to overlook the small stuff, but one way to at least begin is by committing to monitoring the approximate ratio of how many positive, ‘this is SO great!’ comments you are giving out on a daily basis versus the critical feedback comments. Write this into your Training Plan as a daily reflection, or even a quick reflection after each class period! Then, continue to grow from there. The hope is that ultimately, you are not only proud of the values and skills that you are teaching students, but you are also having a ton of fun on a daily basis in this profession.

So sweat the small stuff. Are students in your classroom prone to getting angry with you for stuff that should be able to be rolled off their backs as easily as water through a storm drain? Or do you need to spend some time cleaning up that drain such that when the storm does come, there’s plenty of space created for that frustration to flow off their backs?

-mmm

References:
Bryant, A. (2013, June 19th). In Head-Hunting, Big Data May Not Be Such a Big Deal. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/20/business/in-head-hunting-big-data-may-not-be-such-a-big-deal.html?pagewanted=2&_r=4&&utm_source=link_newsv9&utm_campaign=item_178118&utm_medium=copy
Busteed, B. (2014, October 9th). Make a Difference. Show Students You Care. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/178118/difference-show-students-care.aspx

*Don’t believe me on this point? Rather than trying to search out statistics on the issue in research journals or Gallup studies, go straight to the heart of the issue yourself and do what we did this year: do an audit of the classroom computers in use at your school. Since seemingly everyone is obsessed with ‘one-to-one’ classrooms right now, I am guessing you have a decent number of classrooms in your school that use computers on a weekly basis, at least. Review the history of the computer-use during lesson time. What do you see?
At our school, we found a maximum on-task screen time for computer-based lessons of just over 50%.

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