Sweat the Small Stuff

Perhaps you have heard this phrase in conversation: ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff.’ This imperative first became popular in the 1960s as an adaptation of the older expression ‘don’t sweat it’ a statement intended to free someone of guilt or worry (Oxford English Dictionary, 2024). Therefore, by not sweating the small stuff, we make a point of not being bothered with the minutiae that fills our day-to-day experience.

While I would agree that it is not advisable (nor possible) for a teacher to attempt monitoring every small interaction or orchestrating every minute detail in her classroom, I would suggest that Don’t sweat the small stuff is not the best advice to live by as a teacher. What if the details we consider to be small are really the most impactful moments of the school day?

I began thinking about this topic recently after reading some research articles on the power of making daily incremental progress (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). According to these studies, it generally is not the most memorable or noteworthy events in a process that define it but rather the small, transient moments that culminate over time (Mochon et al., 2007; Weick, 1981). In short, it is not registering for and limping one’s way through a single marathon that will lead to a longer life of improved health; it is rather the accumulation of small deposits made in the form of daily exercise, eating wisely, and getting sufficient sleep. It is not an emotional altar call experience that defines one’s spiritual condition but rather a disciplined life defined by daily taking up one’s cross in humility. Likewise, it is not the exciting annual field trip or the occasional extravagant lesson that will have a lasting impact on students. Could it be that our students would be better served if we were to instead focus on doing the small things well?

So, what are some examples of small stuff that we as teachers should ‘sweat’?  And is there a way to transform some of the big things we attempt in our teaching into practices that are more personal and impactful?

Individualized Feedback

There are indeed times when commending a whole class for a job well-done is the right thing to do. Completing an assignment well, persisting through the learning of a challenging concept, and exhibiting excellent behavior are all examples of times when a teacher should verbally affirm his class. However, in doing so we should not neglect the power in giving specific feedback to individual students.

I recently gave my students a short survey asking them to rate my teaching on a feedback form. I can tell that my students put some thought into all the responses, but the most challenging and insightful responses were from the several students who rated me at ‘not at all’ on “Praises Good Work and Effort.” Ouch. At first, I thought that they must have been mistaken or that they perhaps did not understand the intent of the question. With some more thought, I realized that as a teacher, I do tend to focus primarily on praising the whole-group rather than taking the time to relate on an individual level.

It can feel much more efficient to just recognize everyone’s effort all at once! However, being more intentional about affirming specific students for their diligent work (especially those who do so infrequently) and celebrating the small victories can be a highly motivating experience for students. By engaging in this practice, we allow students to see that we care for them as individuals and not just as a collective group.

Everyday Interactions

I generally give my students a lengthy interest survey at the beginning of the year that is fun for them to complete and provides me with an extensive look into their interests, goals, and perceived strengths and weaknesses. This practice has been valuable in helping me to learn as much as possible about my students in a relatively short period of time. However, it can be tempting to rely mostly on the results of the survey rather than investing the time and effort into developing meaningful relationships through intentional daily interactions.

Greeting students with a smile at the door, asking questions about their day, eating lunch with them, showing interest in their hobbies, or playing with them at recess are all excellent ways to experience the benefits of sustained, incremental growth in the teacher-student connection. These interactions also build trust and positive rapport – additional ingredients for strong relationships and a strong classroom culture that facilitates learning.

Applications to Lesson Planning

I will introduce this one with a short anecdote. I am someone who generally enjoys novelty and trying new things. Several years ago, I read a book about an innovative way to approach lesson planning and unit design. I was completely smitten with the idea, so I began the monumental task of reviewing my entire collection of fifth grade lesson plans with the intention of revising everything before the start of the school year. Needless to say, I did not achieve my goal, but I did find a fast-track method for achieving ‘burn out’ status in record-breaking time. Would my teaching have been improved had I achieved my goal? It is quite possible; however, I likely would have been further along had I chosen a path of incremental daily progress. 

A better strategy for improving lessons and the overall flow of the school day might be to choose a few areas of teaching practice to focus on rather than hoping to experience a radical transformation within a short window of time. For example, choosing to focus on streamlining class transitions, improving a specific classroom procedure, or finding strategies to give clearer instructions are all relatively small components of the school day where steady incremental progress would produce a large return over time.

Choosing to ‘not sweat the small stuff’ may have its place from time to time and in certain seasons of one’s career, but we as teachers must recognize the impact that seemingly insignificant details have in our classrooms.  By strategically adjusting our focus from big to small, we can learn to leverage the power of the mundane details we may habitually overlook. 

What ‘small stuff’ can you begin sweating today?

References

Amabile, T., & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle: Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Harvard Business Review Press.

Mochon, D., Norton, M. I., & Ariely, D. (2008). Getting off the hedonic treadmill, one step at a time: The impact of regular religious practice and exercise on well-being. Journal of Economic Psychology, 29(5), 632-642. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joep.2007.10.004

Oxford English Dictionary. (2024). Sweat. In Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved April 27, 2024, from https://www.oed.com/dictionary/sweat_v?tab=meaning_and_use#19552652

Weick, K. (1984). Small wins: Redefining the scale of social problems. American Psychologist, 39(1), 40-49. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.39.1.40

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

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