Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), tells a story about time management. He describes filling a big jar about halfway with sand. After putting in some small stones, he tries to add the big stones; of course, they don’t fit. He demonstrates that, by putting the large stones in first, adding the small stones, and finally adding the sand, everything fits. The lesson? This is how our time works. Our calendars and days are so full of little things that are urgent, then we don’t have time to do the things we value (big stones). The largest stones, the things we value the most, must be planned first, or they don’t happen.
The same example works for us as we plan our classrooms. What are the stones in your classroom? The standards or the content you are expected to teach? If so, you agree with most teachers I talk with. But I think that answer is too narrow. Covey’s point is that the big stones are theimportant things we value that get lost in the urgency of everyday challenges. In your classroom, the biggest, most important stones are the key instructional and motivational strategies that make a difference with your students, the true building blocks of learning. The smaller rocks are your standards. You know they are mandatory, and you ensure that you cover them. Finally, the sand granules are all the other activities that take up time in your classroom such as checking attendance or collecting money. It’s like Covey said, you always get to the sand, but sometimes we have so much sand that we never get to the stones. There’s simply not enough time left. We are so caught up in the urgency of busyness that important things don’t happen.
That’s how I felt when I started teaching. I was so worried about covering the material for the test and making sure I finished the textbook that I sometimes just didn’t get to other important concepts. I quickly realized that many of the characteristics I wanted to develop in my students (independent learning, problem solving, creativity) needed to be the foundation for my instruction. Otherwise, they would be the leftovers—the important lessons I would never have time for. That’s the point: If you wait to finish everything you are required to do before you use motivational strategies, you’ll never get to them. Strategies should frame how you do the things you need to do.
You may feel like the requirements to which you are held (standards and testing) are the big stones and that they are weighing you down. Again, standards and accountability serve a purpose. But how you accomplish them is up to you. Anyone can simply meet the requirements, similar to a checklist, but that won’t promote higher levels of student understanding, nor will it encourage your students to be successful lifelong learners or problem solvers. But if you build your teaching around engaging motivational and instructional strategies, chances are you’ll accomplish more; and your students will learn more. Engagement strategies, when viewed as the big rocks that go in the jar first, are not one more thing to do; they are the way to do all the things you already have to do.