Do Sweat the Small Stuff

Steven LevyThe Teachers' Lounge

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men… (Colossians 3:23)

Thank God for singing cosmic rhythms into the steady beat of time! He fills our waiting hearts with hope-inspired imagination of how things might be different each new day, week, year. In schools we are invited into this hope as we return from the Christmas celebration, imagining a fresh start, rededicating ourselves to what matters most, rekindling the principles, practices and procedures that somehow unraveled, the way things go in a broken world, especially in classrooms where we are asked to pay attention to so much more than we can manage well. We’ll finally get that homework procedure down, start right to work on that “Do Now,” and rekindle our rote-slipped prayers with the light of the living God. Come, Lord Jesus!

And so, here they come again. How will we welcome students back into our classrooms? How will we invite them into the 2019th year since the birth of Jesus, who makes all things new?

In the (new) beginning

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much.” Luke 16:10

A famous anecdote from the legendary career of UCLA basketball coach John Wooden describes the first practice session of the season. Imagine, the top high school players in the country, always the best on whatever team they played: state champions, players of the year, full scholarship to UCLA, coming together for the first time. What does coach Wooden do at this all important first practice? He shows them how to put on their socks. “He had two purposes in doing this. First, wrinkles cause blisters. Blisters cost games. Second, he wanted his players to learn how crucial seemingly trivial details could be. ‘Details create success’ was the creed of a coach who won ten N.C.A.A. men’s basketball championships.”[1]

Now imagine your students returning to class – some saturated with the presents of their hearts’ desires, others depressed in the broken peace and love of family life, all centered in the universe of their own minds. How will you bring them together in the new year? What details will you focus on with renewed attention?

Details create success

“You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.”  Matthew 25:23

Admiral William McRaven, the commander of U.S. Special Operations, in a 2014 commencement speech at the University of Texas at Austin said: “If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter.” He went on to write a book about it, Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life…And Maybe the World.

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Drawing lines

In my 4th grade classroom, I always started the year drawing straight lines and curves. We practiced for two weeks. We learned what it meant to do something well, and kept at it until everyone felt they had accomplished something; that they could do a seemingly trivial task with excellence and beauty. (For more details about the line drawings, see

Tuck in your shirts

I worked with an extremely challenging middle school, designated as one of the four worst in the state. The faculty had tried everything to create positive school culture, but they still had police on every floor, high suspension rates and poor test scores. Fifteen faculty members visited another school, similar demographics, and saw students from backgrounds like their own showing kindness to one another, respecting their teachers, and achieving academic success. Hope was rekindled. What could they do to establish this kind of culture in their school? After three hours of deliberation, the teachers decided that they would have their students tuck in their shirts.

The first thing that had to happen was that teachers needed to tuck in their shirts. Then they had to be out in the halls every transition period enforcing the rule. In three weeks, they were amazed – students had their shirts tucked in! They realized when they all worked together, modeled the behavior themselves, had high expectations for their students and held them accountable, they actually could make a difference in their lives. No more blaming society, the parents, the devil. It was a small, but essential step in intentionally building a culture of respect and achievement. Put on your socks. Make your bed. Tuck in your shirts.

Think of how you will receive your students in 2018. How will you bring them into the “unity of spirit in the bond of peace?”  What details will you ask your students to pay attention to? How will you give them the message that everything we do here matters – to our class, our community and to our God? Please share your ideas in the “comments.”

As your students return, pick something small and attend to it with rigor. Practice it until you get it right. All the time. As if working for the Lord, not for you.

Not too late! Come learn more about establishing school and classroom culture at Deeper Learning Conference

[1](Gawande, A. (2011, October). Personal Best. The New Yorker.


  • Steven Levy

    After 28 years teaching in classrooms K-12, Steven Levy ( is now an educational consultant, working independently and with EL Education. He guides teachers in designing service-based curriculum, engaging instructional practices, student owned assessments, and character development. He was recognized as the Massachusetts State Teacher of the Year (1993), and honored by the Disney American Teacher Awards as the national Outstanding General Elementary Teacher (1995). Mr. Levy was the recipient of the Joe Oakey Award for his national impact on project-based learning, and received the John F. Kennedy Prize for the teaching of history. Mr. Levy and his fourth grade students were designated “Conservation Heroes” by the National Park Service for their study of the effects of a local bike path on the environment and the community. Mr. Levy has written various articles for educational journals, and his book, Starting From Scratch (Heinemann, 1996), details some of the projects and students he has worked with in his elementary classrooms.