Last week I outlined a mechanism for developing and maintaining habit change called the “small steps” approach. Today I’d like to walk through exactly how I would “small step” a new habit in my own teaching.
Example: Using a Step List to Improve Punctuality
One problem I want to address in my teaching is punctuality. Respecting the parents and students in my studio is of utmost importance to me, and I want that to be reflected in the way I start and finish on time.
A challenge to staying prompt is that it is very easy to run a few minutes late (transition time, a student breaks down and has a tantrum, I get caught up teaching something very important, the parent asks an important question), but I feel it is unfair to end a lesson early. Like a ratchet — or public transportation — it is impossible to get ahead and all too easy to fall behind.
Since I can’t anticipate when delays occur, it seems the solution to this problem is planning for every lesson to finish 10 minutes early. Unfortunately, I’ve trained myself to be comfortable with 35 minute long lessons instead of 20. But efficient, intelligent, and practiced teaching would help me finish on time. So let’s analyze how I will make this change.
The first thing to note is that the ONLY change I’m making in my teaching right now is my ability to teach 20 minute, compact lessons. Every other habit is established and on maintenance (see the listed articles in Small Steps), or waiting on my habit wishlist.
I want to identify the smallest unit of change that will set me on a path to achieving a 20 minute lesson. This should be something that takes reminding (it isn’t something I do already), but doesn’t require excess willpower.
A good place to start for the first step is awareness, because many times I am so caught up teaching a new skill to a student that I ignore the passing time. Actively noticing time and exactly how long my teaching takes will allow me to make more intelligent decisions to be more efficient. For my first step, I’m not going to actively make any changes to my teaching style, but I note the exact time we took our bow in my student lesson note in Evernote. On my steps list I would write, LAST BOW TIME. Because I want to make this as easy as possible, I’m only going to taking note of the last student I teach each day.
After successfully taking notes for a week, I see that 4 out of 5 times I finished the lesson after our 30 minute scheduled time. Keep in mind that I want the bow to happen at the 20 minute mark, so I’m still a long way from achieving my goal. But it is crucial to consider this week a success, as I noted the bow time of EVERY last lesson I taught. That is a huge achievement. The awareness it brought is far more permanent and positive than halfheartedly attempting to finish lessons on time.
The next week I decide to take note of the bow time for every student. On my steps list I write EVERY BOW TIME. Notice that the previous step is embedded in the current step (we are making the crack wider). I miss a few, not because it was hard but because I wasn’t yet in the routine of taking notes and forgot. However, by my last day of teaching that week I noted everyones’ time. Furthermore, without actually actively changing my teaching the fact that I was aware of when I finished was starting to bring the bow closer to 27-29 minutes. I was regularly checking my watch before I finished.
With the awareness habit developing nicely, I decide to spend the next week acknowledging the checkpoint for my 20 minute mark. I still haven’t decided to change anything about the way I teach students, but now my goal is to catch my watch while it is on the 20 (or 50) minute mark. After the lesson, in the time I already spend noting the bow time, I note what we were doing during that 20 minute mark. On my steps list I write CATCH 20 MIN MARK.
This is going so well after a week that there are now few lessons that I miss the 20 minute glance. Because this awareness is cuing the end of the lesson for me, the bow is starting to happen at 25-26 minutes (so much progress!). It is time to make a bigger change — I can feel the momentum building.
I want to establish a more robust ritual to conclude (and cue) the end of the lesson. I spend some time thinking about my own experience, performance psychology, and bouncing ideas off friends. I formulate the following ideal ritual…
- end on a high note, on a quality rep (read more here)
- what did we do today? (Nancy Lokken’s approach)
- do you have any questions? (Ed Sprunger’s approach)
- take a bow
To try to add this entire routine to the end of every lesson right away would be the equivalent of running a bulldozer into my wall of teaching habits– it would destroy far more than it would add. So I decide to break down the final routine into small steps. The easiest way to start would be to keep everything the same, but when I’m ready to finish (when I normally would have gone straight to the bow) I first ask every student “Do you have any questions?” On my steps list I write QUESTIONS? Because this step requires no willpower and very little time, the primary obstacle is remembering to do it. For the first few days of the week I draw a question mark on the inside of my wrist to remind me while teaching to ask. By the end of the week I’m doing this successfully with every student.
I follow the same process to add the question, “What did we do today?” to our routine. Because I’ve added these to our lesson, the bow time (which I still take note of, of course) is happening at 27-29 minutes again. But consider how much closer we are to the ultimate goal of finishing every lesson on a strong note at just 20 minutes in.
The last addition to the lesson finishing ritual is to make sure the ritual begins right after the student performs a high quality rep. This is far more dynamic and variable then the last few small steps, so I decide to go about it carefully. I pull up old lesson footage (link to youtube channel) and analyze how the last 5 minutes of each lesson went. Did my lessons end on a high note? If so, what about it was a high note? Were there other opportunities to end on a high note?
Based on my observation, it seemed high notes came in two forms:
(A) Successful reintegration of several components
(B) Completion of a long string of correct repetitions
So what is a seemingly impromptu or improvisatory element of the lesson I can work to shape by either asking for (A) an integrated performance or (B) setting up an opportunity for a successful string of reps. Simple enough, right? To my steps list I added SET UP HIGH NOTE. After practicing in lessons, I’m always attempting a reintegration or series of reps at the end of the lesson even if it feels awkward. I now have a complete end of lesson ritual!
The last step is to time the ritual early enough so that the bow happens at the 20 minute mark. I have a couple of options for next steps…
- I could video lessons and figure out where I’m wasting time, then minimize that time
- I could practice making a detailed time schedule and try to stick to it
- Or I could simply use my watch as a cue, no matter where we are in the lesson, to begin the end of lesson routine
After one or two more weeks of work, I would be consistently wrapping up the lessons at the 20 minute mark, and not running 5 or 10 minutes behind as I used to.
This might sound like an outrageous amount of planning in order to make a simple change, but I think that represents a flaw in the way we perceive habitual change.
By taking the time to do this slow and steady work, your lesson ending ritual will forever be changed. It will no longer require any will power for you to complete a lesson exactly as you wanted. You have fundamentally redesigned a core aspect of your teaching for the better.
All things considered, a few months seems like a relatively short amount of time to do something so powerful!
I encourage you to engage in this process. Slowly, super super slowly, plan a course of change that your want to make in your teaching and stick with it every day. This is our path, as teachers, to excellence.