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The Little Things: 10 Small Habits That Make a Big Difference


Tiny changes can make monumental differences. In his breakout bestseller Atomic Habits, writer James Clear explains the power of what is known as “habit-stacking.” This process is built on doing one small thing on the pathway toward achieving a larger goal. Suppose I want to read more during the week. I could start by just reading one sentence, which brings me an incremental step closer to my objective. Then the next day, I might increase my reading to a whole paragraph as I begin “stacking” new smaller habits on top of one another to produce ideal results. 

In teaching, we can do much the same thing by taking gargantuan tasks and “chunking” them. When we do this for students, they are able to complete long-term projects or intimidating assignments with more ease. When we do it for ourselves, what is otherwise an unwieldy workload becomes so much more manageable. The 10 small habits below can be broken apart further, or stacked and built upon to create enduring habits for success.

  1. Stay one week ahead. Looking at an entire unit can be so overwhelming, especially when we’re either new to the profession or teaching an unfamiliar class for the first time. While having a big picture vision of where students need to be at the end of a unit and back-mapping from there is important, the smaller details of instruction can be worked out weekly. That way, the intimidating task of designing several months’ worth of lessons is far more doable, and not nearly as scary.

  2. Have emergency plans. Life is unpredictable, and we never know what is going to happen next. If anything, the last three years have reinforced that truth. Being out without notice is far less stressful if teachers develop an arsenal of emergency lesson plans, ideally for about a week of instruction. Then, assuming these plans are shared with an instructional leader who will have the information on hand if needed, everyone has one less thing to worry about when things go awry. 

  3. Pack the night before. While it is tempting to throw work bags and used food containers into a dark corner and forget about them upon getting home, the smarter thing is to take a few minutes and get everything set up for the next day. If that seems like too much, just washing out dirty dishes or sorting graded papers takes everyone a step closer to being prepared. And who knows? Once those dishes are clean, maybe some of us will have the energy to prepare the food that goes into them. That’s how habit stacking works!

  4. Have copies and materials for the next day ready before leaving the building. Even if some teachers do not have a dedicated classroom (a difficulty that is so hard to grapple with), setting up a cart or space with materials for the next day can be a huge time-saver. That way, we can roll into spaces with slideshows or handouts at the ready, and with everything sorted out. Again, just doing one thing to make the following day a little easier is a productive step when it’s too tiring to do all the preparation.

  5. Plan for a quick exit. Sometimes, teachers need to leave in a hurry. That might be for a midday appointment, to be at a child’s school on time for pickup, or just because the week is ending and we’ve had it. Figure out the best way to leave the building without compromising anyone’s security, and use it as a quick getaway when the time comes. That way, those occasional stressful logistical gymnastics will get a little easier.

  6. Carve out an “untouchable” time. Being available is considered a good thing, but as every teacher knows, there is such a thing as overdoing how much people can access our time. Selecting a specific block of each day that is carved out for nothing but our own needs is the best thing we can do for ourselves. That might be an early hour at work before everyone arrives, or a time in the afternoon lull when people have left the building. Using that time to get work done, stream a television show or just stare into space with a comforting beverage makes the rest of the day go much more smoothly.

  7. Engage in one friendly interchange each day with a colleague. Studies continue to show the important role that human interaction plays in both health and productivity. Teaching might be isolating, but taking time to connect with colleagues for either personal or professional conversations is refreshing at the very least, if not downright helpful. It helps to know that we are not alone in our struggles, and to have an empathetic teacher friend nearby.

  8. Say “yes” or “no,” depending on your personal tendency. Some people have a hard time saying no, even when we’re overextended. On the other hand, some of us fear disappointing others and turn down what might be a fantastic opportunity. After determining which of these defaults is most common in personal experience, experiment with doing the opposite of what comes naturally. It might open important doors, or close others that are holding progress at bay.

  9. Experiment with one new resource. Resources take many forms in a school building, be they human, technological or material. Trying something new helps refresh practice, whether it is trying out a new online application or asking a colleague from a different area of expertise for some perspective. It would be too overwhelming to try a lot of things at once, so starting small with just one is a great way to grow without making any dramatic moves.

  10. Ask for help. Adults are often trained to work things out on their own, which is a real shame. We learn the most from one another, and that includes anyone who might be around: students, colleagues, administrators, or other school staff. When in doubt, or even when a new point of view might be welcome, get used to asking others for help. Part of achieving a growth mindset is knowing who to ask, rather than assuming that we should have all the information ourselves.

Good habits might be tough to build if we try to do too much, too fast. With incremental but accessible changes to the day, teachers can slowly “habit stack” with practices that get everyone a little bit closer to having a teaching day that is manageable, sustainable and even joyful at times. Tiny things can make a huge difference if we know where to start, and what matters the most. 

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam Plotinsky is an instructional specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has taught and led for more than 20 years. She is the author of Teach More, Hover Less and Lead Like a Teacher. She is also a National Board-Certified Teacher with additional certification in administration and supervision. She can be reached at or via Twitter: @MirPloMCPS