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Small changes are not small change

6 min read


Is change hard? Is change easy? The answer to both of those questions is “yes.”

If you reflect upon all that is done to “change” schools, you would probably think that policymakers think change is hard — very hard. Think of all the initiatives that are launched every day to change schools: new tests, new curriculum, new evaluation systems, new laws, policies and regulations. When all of these, however, fail to change schools, the people who develop these change initiatives end up thinking that the change initiatives just have to be bigger, stronger and more tightly managed.

All of this “big” type of change, however, is ultimately designed to change what happens at the point of contact between educators and students. Change happens when people interact with each other. People change people — they always have and always will. Change then becomes a matter of what people think, say and do with each other. Looking at change in this way is a great source of hope and optimism. What each teacher chooses to think, say and do with his/her students holds the real key to school change. Teachers, who believe that positive change is not just possible but inevitable, also know that the best way to change schools is to do it one student at a time.

Here are some small changes each teacher could try that cost nothing, require little extra time, but can change the lives of students for the better:

Be polite, humble and confident.

When teachers consistently say, “please,” “thank you” and “you’re welcome” to their students, they are sending a powerful message of respect and appreciation. It conveys a sense of partnership with them and affirms them as learners. When teachers ask for help and admit mistakes, they are modeling two important elements of learning and demonstrating a confidence in the learning process.

Think of your class as a community, not just a group.

Individuals are motivated to learn more and achieve more when they feel connected to  the people around them. Very often students are more motivated to help others than they are to achieve individually. When teachers help students discover what they have in common with others, they make it easier for students to watch out for each other. When teachers help students discover something valuable in each other, students experience that working as team does not have to be relegated to sports. This type of learning environment mirrors what is being done in the most progressive and creative companies.

Advertise you care.

I once asked a high-school faculty to raise their hand if they cared for every student in the school. Every hand went up. I then asked them if every student in the school knew that fact and hardly any hands went up. When teachers ask students “how is it going” and get a grunt as a response 10 times in a row and give up, they might have missed an opportunity to reach a student who was waiting for them to ask 15 times before sharing what was going on in his/her life. Teachers can have stacks of “NEED to TALK” cards available for students to use and place on their desk in case it is hard to verbally ask for help.

Be interested and interesting.

Students want to know what is going on inside a teacher’s heart and mind. Enthusiasm and passion for knowledge is the true subject matter that is taught and the one that is most remembered after the facts and details have faded away. Teachers, who are sincerely interested in what students are thinking and feeling, can help them discover the value of their own thoughts and feelings. Instead of asking “who can tell me?” teachers can say “please share your thinking with me.”

Set the bar high with a lot of cushions under it.

Research by Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has identified two key conditions for optimal learning in all organizations: high psychological safety combined with high accountability or striving for continuous improvement. Too often schools stress high accountability but provide consequences for mistakes and failures. Even the most capable students learn to play it safe in those environments. Make sure you make it safe to reach far and risk failing.

Practice full employment.

When there is a job for every student in the class, the students will feel that it is their class and will assume greater ownership and responsibility for everything that happens in it. Teachers can brainstorm with their class what jobs are needed.

Expect success but prepare for problems.

If problems are part of the learning process, it makes sense to have a plan in place for when they happen. Students can write their own plans for what they will do when they have a typical problem. The whole class can also develop a plan for dealing with class problems. Success is not having a problem-free experience. Students should learn that problems are opportunities for learning.

Talk about thinking, learning and changing.

Any time invested in reflecting and discussing the process of learning always benefits the learning itself. When students learn about the process of changing, they start to believe that they can change and end up changing. Teachers who devote time to reflect with their students about how they are learning are modeling a critical aspect of learning and helping students develop an important habit.

I hope this menu of small changes offers something that might be worth playing with in this new school year. It’s fun to try and even more fun trying with your students! Fun and learning can actually go together in the same sentence. That would be a small change with big results!

 Jim Dillon (@dillon_jim) has been an educator for over 35 years including twenty as a school administrator. He is currently the director of the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He has written two books, Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden) and No Place for Bullying (Corwin). He writes a blog at