Dinesh Ayyappan

Little Stones

Dinesh Ayyappan

You know this Confucius quote? 

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.

It just popped into my head and I was trying to connect it to teaching, but then I realized that teaching is a little different from moving a mountain. Well, it’s a lot different. But one big difference is that you could be done with moving a mountain.

The bits and pieces of teaching are more like writing a story: you’re never really done, but at some point you have to decide you’re done enough. Your lesson plan’s not ideal, but you really need to start making the handout that goes with it. Perfectionists, Beware.

And sometimes, you really want to write a beautiful, narrative blog post, but when are you going to find the hours to think and edit? Not today. But there are stories that ought to be told, and I have two of them for you.

1) Many weeks ago, my students were taking a multiple choice test so that we can get a sense of the prior knowledge they’re bringing into the classroom. They can talk to us, think out loud; it’s a casual environment. So a student calls me over.

"Mister," he beckons, "I don’t get this gravity question."

"Okay," I say. "What are you thinking about it?"

"Well there’s the light ball and the heavy ball and they’re both dropped from the same place. So it’s obviously not these three options."

"Why’s that?"

"Mister, it’s just obvious. The heavy ball falls first. Why would you even have the other choices?"

We talk about the options a bit. Either the heavy ball hits the ground first, the light one hits first, or they hit the ground at the same time. I’m pushing back a little about using the word obvious, and he gets frustrated. He’s humoring me though, so he says that he’ll just show me. He lifts a pen and a notebook to about 6 inches above his table, drops them, and the expression on his face changes.

"Wait a sec," he says, as if it were a mistake. He tries it again - same thing. Then he drops them onto the floor from table-height. They still hit at the same time. He is absolutely flabbergasted. I think his jaw actually dropped.

Watch a student shatter his paradigm of gravity: Check.

2) At my school, there’s an emphasis on community leadership. During advisory one day, students filled out surveys and reflected a bit on what community leadership meant and looked like.

Question 1. Who are the leaders in your community?

I was just flipping through some responses, and I saw the word teacher pop up much more often than I thought it would. One response was just this: Mayor, Teacher, President. It was a simple, sharp reminder of the amount of power we have in our students’ lives. On both our good days and bad ones, we’re making headlines.

Later that day I shared this with another teacher, and what he said stuck with me:

No one ever quits teaching to say they went to a more important job.

This is why perfectionism is so tempting. What if it’s not good enough? There’s a lot at stake. Maybe the bits and pieces of teaching are like small stones. When I pick one up, I’m afraid it’s not the right stone or the right time. When I pile them on my lump of a mountain, I’m afraid they’ll topple. But also, maybe that’s bound to happen. And maybe I can end up moving a mountain anyway.