Tiny Successes

My first teaching job was in a Catholic school for low-income girls on the Lower East Side. My boss, Connie, who was one of the co-founders the school in the early 90s (back when she was still a nun), was an amazing woman. She taught me a lot about teaching and about building relationships with students. But one of the most important things I learned from her was about success. “We’re growing olive trees, not marigolds,” she would frequently say. She said it a faculty meetings, to members of the board, to parents, to the principal as she agonized over our test scores. She said it with the same fervor and faith with which she read 1 Corinthians chapter 12 on the first day of school every year. She said it with the voice of a true believer. And she made me believe it too: That success isn’t only measured in huge leaps, in fast growth and quick, dramatic changes; it is also measured in tiny, incremental steps forward. Growth you don’t even notice or successes that are so small, you could miss them if you weren’t on the lookout. Growth that takes time, but makes something amazing, sturdy, and enduring.

I’ve had several of these moments in the past two weeks and it reminded me how important it is to celebrate the small successes, not just the large ones, and that tiny steps toward growth are just as important as big ones.

When a student stops in to ask for help on an assignment that is a perfect match for a strategy we’ve been working on for weeks and then asks for help with it–even if he’s not employing the strategy independently or hasn’t really tried to use it–that’s a success.

When a teacher who has been resistant to working with me on differentiation invites me into her classroom “just to see a bit”, that’s a success.

When a student chooses to showcase a tiny change she’s noticed in her writing in her portfolio, that’s a success.

When a student writes down his homework in his planner (even if he doesn’t get it done), that’s a success.

When a grad student who seems to have been ignoring feedback on lessons makes one small change that shows she’s starting to get it, that’s a success.

Sometimes teaching can be really overwhelming, especially when you’re teaching students who struggle. Growing olive trees is hard work. You care for them, and you try to provide the right climate and the right food, but it could be a long time before they bear fruit. When we notice the tiny successes in our students, those small, but important, steps forward, we notice our students and their efforts. When we notice those tiny steps, we’re reminded that when we acknowledge tiny successes, they can feel like huge leaps forward.

What tiny successes have you seen recently?

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