Fortunately, as a Quaker school, we spend time each week in meeting for worship – this is time spent in shared silence, often spent reflecting on attempting to understand our many experiences. In Quakerism, we also focus on the belief of continuing revelation – the belief that “new truth is revealed to us as we continue our spiritual journeys individually and with one another.” (quoted from the PYM website)
This week, as we started our week of teacher meetings, preparing for another new school year, I felt particularly fortunate that we had the time to reflect as we gathered together for the first time. As I reflected during the meeting for worship, I recognized the similarities my spiritual journey as a Quaker and my journey as a teacher. Growing as a teacher allows me to connect my experiences from the classroom and life to create better learning opportunities for my students.
It is a phrase I have heard uttered by many coaches and players throughout my time in sports and I have emphasized it over and over again with my team, even with myself. It is most often used in response to a negative play, encouraging another player to move on mentally and prepare for the next moment.
The night before our meeting for worship, I heard a coach focusing on this in a new way. He encouraged a group of coaches to focus on the next drill, the next practice, the next game. Frequently, I think, even the coaches of the youngest athletes let our minds wander to championships, college, professional sports and beyond. What if we focused instead on improving our players for the next drill, practice, or game.
This builds off of James Clear’s Goals vs Systems approach. In this approach, goals can be useful, but systems are much more valuable. An example of this is a 5K. My wife wanted to run one, and I was happy to join her in preparation. We slowly worked our way up from not running at all, to running consistently, and even feeling pretty good about our progress. But after some slight injuries and finishing the 5K, our motivation to continue was up. Pushing through an injury to meet the goal of the 5K may have kept me from a more important system of exercising consistently to stay in shape.
Pressure to reach someone else’s goals
In life, this goals vs systems challenge can show up in multiple ways. For children or students, we often hear adults remarking that they are growing so fast.
“They’ll be staring kindergarten before you know it.”
“High school will be here in the blink of an eye.”
“College is right around the corner.”
Even as an adult, once you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, you are asked about marriage. Once you get married, people ask when you’re having kids. After you have one child, they’re asking when the next one is coming. I can only imagine we’ve all experience at least one of these uncomfortable situations, if not something similar.
While I was frustrated with these comments when hearing them, I have done something similar to my students. I am preparing for the next grade, or middle school, or high school. Even in elementary school, there is pressure to lead students toward a college-ready, career-ready future.
There is nothing wrong with having those goals, and nothing wrong with people thinking about these goals. It can be incredibly valuable to study whether our current strategies are preparing students for the future and making meaningful changes to give our students the best opportunities.
But, if our teachers are spending too much time thinking about the distant future, they are not spending enough time on the present.
Teaching for the Next Day
My revelation in meeting this week was that we should teach for the next day. We should have big goals in mind, even keep track of them and whether our students achieve them, but focus on the next day. We should ask ourselves, how can I make my class, my student better prepared for tomorrow? How can they be a better reader today for tomorrow? How can they be a better friend today for tomorrow?
This might happen in a few ways.
Simplify – It might mean you simplify the system to help the student focus on improving one small element. That might just be listening. It means breaking down your lesson plans into even smaller parts. I know that teachers constantly break things down into parts for students to learn and build upon.
Set a really small goal – If a student is struggling with confidence and volume in writing, set a goal with them that is attainable quickly (write one paragraph in ten minutes, complete one page in class today) and celebrate that small achievement. That can make them a better writer for tomorrow. If a student is scared to speak in front of the class, ask them if they can talk about something simple (what they ate for breakfast, their favorite video game) for one minute. Have their classmates give them positive feedback.
Take more time – Bigger goals can often create pressure to teach more quickly – this is the problem with preset curricula and the expectation that you must complete everything in the program. Sometimes, students simply need more time with a concept. Let them play around with manipulatives. Let them talk to a partner to work out an idea. Don’t rush in with an explanation. Give your students time and space to make mistakes and learn from them.
Trust that your students will be college- and career-ready some day, but they don’t need to be college- or career-ready tomorrow. Make them a better student for the next lesson. Encourage them to be a better friend this afternoon. Help them to be a better learner for tomorrow.