The Smallest Tasks Make a Big Difference

It’s easy to put off small tasks. Sometimes we put them off until “later.” Other times we put them off so long that we just convince ourselves they aren’t important and forget about them all together. However, sometimes it’s the smallest tasks that end up making the biggest difference.

Below is an excerpt from a story in my new book, Life in Cut Time: Time Management for Music Teachers. Even if you’ve never taught music, or taken a music class in your life, you can surely appreciate the value of making time to take care of tiny little tasks that end up making a big difference to others.

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If it Takes Less Than 5 Minutes, Do it Now!

Brandon was the kind of student who made teachers cringe when they saw him on their rosters. This student had been a menace to the school since his early days of kindergarten.

I tried everything with this student. I met with his parents and his classroom teacher. I had behavior plans and incentive charts. Nothing worked and my time and energy were quickly draining. At the end of the first semester, after I started to receive complaints from other parents that Brandon was inhibiting their child’s ability to participate, I had to have a heart-to-heart with Brandon’s mom about dropping her son from band.

After a lengthy conversation, we agreed to give him one last chance. This was against my better judgment, but I just couldn’t say no to this parent who was obviously also at her wits’ end.

A few weeks into the new semester, Brandon actually had a semi-good day. He came into class without causing a disruption, got out his trumpet, played along the whole time, and even volunteered to answer a question. I was shocked! I praised him over and over for his improved behavior, but he seemed unfazed.

As I wrapped up my work at the end of the day, I wondered if the day’s experience had been a fluke. I considered calling Brandon’s mom to tell her about the positive change I witnessed, but when I saw the lengthy to-do list on my desk, I realized I didn’t have time for another half-hour talk with her. I left school without giving it another thought.

When I got home that night, after stepping away from the situation for a bit, I realized I was being ridiculous. I had all of my band parents’ emails in my address book. It would take less than a minute to drop Brandon’s mom a quick email telling her about his progress. I signed into my account from home and pecked out a few sentences.

Dear Sheila,

I wanted to let you know that I saw a complete 180-degree shift in Brandon’s behavior in band today. I knew there was a motivated student in there somewhere and he definitely let that side of him show today. Thank you for working with him. If this behavior continues, I am confident he will find great success with band in the future.

There. Done. Less than 100 words and 1 minute of my time.

When I got to school the next morning, I was greeted with a tearful voicemail from Brandon’s mom.

Mrs. Schwartz, you have no idea how much your email made an impact on my son and our family. I am so afraid to read letters from the school because they are always bad. I have never had a teacher take the time to tell me that my son actually did something good or would ever be successful in anything. When I shared your email with Brandon, he flashed a smile from ear to ear. Thank you. As a mother, that is the best thing I can ever hope for.

She also left the same message for my principal who promptly called me into her office and thanked me for making such a positive impact at the school.

That day marked the end of my problems with Brandon. From that point on, he was the model band student. I could not have been happier. Sure, he still had his moments of inattention or defiance, but nothing more than I would expect from any 10-year-old.

That short email – the one that took less than 1 minute of my time and I almost decided I was “too busy” to send – ended up providing one of the best teaching moments of the year.

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Photo Credit: Zirconicusso

Time Management Lessons from a 5th Grader

As many of you know, one of the many things I do is teach 5th grade beginning band. If you’ve never had the opportunity to observe a class of band students during the first week they get their instruments, it is the most glorious example of organized chaos ever.

In the midst of the madness last week (sometime in between gluing pads back on a saxophone and telling a trumpet player that valve oil isn’t something you eat), I was reminded of some important time management lessons.

Time Management Lessons my 5th Grade Band Taught Me

Pursue Tasks with Excitement
When those kids take their instruments off the shelf for the first time, they can hardly contain their excitement. By the time their first half hour class is over, they shout, “That was already 30 minutes??” Time flies when you’re having fun. The more we can find and focus on the joy in our workday, the faster it will go.

Try it a Different Way
When I tell the clarinet section how to make a sound, three out four students will get it pretty quickly, but the fourth one won’t. If I just repeat the same directions over and over again, I will be wasting both my and the student’s time. Those directions didn’t work for him! I have to find a different approach. Don’t waste your time trying over and over again to do something that isn’t working. Find a different way of doing it.

Plan for the Unexpected
On the second day of band, one of the students opened his trombone case and a grasshopper jumped out. (Apparently he found it at morning recess and put it in there for safe-keeping.) I had to quickly assign one “grass hopper catcher” and get the rest of the students back in their chairs focused on something else so precious minutes of my class didn’t slip through my fingers. You can’t plan for everything, so plan to think on your feet when unexpected things come up so you don’t waste too much time.

We All Need a “Drink of Water” Once in a While
Sometimes, 5th graders will ask me to get a drink of water because they are actually thirsty. This is rarely the case. Usually when they say, “Can I get a drink?” they are really saying, “I’m frustrated right now and need to stand up and walk over to the other side of the room for a second.” We could all benefit from this approach. When you’re frustrated with your work, sometimes getting away from it for a minute or two is all you need to kick-start your brain again.

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