I wake up in a mad rush. I’ve overslept. I never oversleep on a work day. What’s happening? I rush to school in a distracted tornado of coffee and papers. When I arrive I can’t remember anyone’s name, or even what I was planning to teach today. This is crazy. I’m standing in front of the class blubbering and stalling for time, wondering where all my copies are, pouring sweat, and frantically trying to remember the day’s intended learning outcomes. What is going on here? This disoriented state persists for a few agonizingly slow minutes. Then I wake up again. Three AM on the clock. It must be late August.
There are unmistakable feelings of excitement and dread at the beginning of the school year, and they can be directly tracked by the frequency of my school-related dreams. I never dream about school in the middle of the school year, but the dreams always return in the last few days of a break: forgotten lesson plans, missing papers, terrible observations. It hits every time like clockwork.
It’s that time of year again. The time when teachers go through their New Year’s Resolution ritual, making all sorts of goals for the upcoming term. This list can get very long and that makes sense. We all want to do a better job each time we enter the school-year cycle, and this is the right time to do it: new students, new classes, newly refreshed, and if other teachers are anything like I am, they have a substantial list of resolutions to help direct the upcoming year.
The most common goals I hear are: grading faster, delivering better feedback, creating better work/life balance, making students better readers, and improving the depth of student engagement. Attached to those broad targets are the myriad of small items that make up the daily work of a teacher such as refining the late-work policy, improving pacing, predicting difficult lessons, establishing routines, getting to know students, and the like. These lists often border on the endless.
The sheer volume of topics that a teacher can tackle leads quickly to over-committing to making things better. Teachers are often optimists, and they’re usually willing to take on a huge number of tasks in the name of student improvement. This is rarely ideal though. Over-commitment leads to too many obligations and instead of getting everything done, nothing gets accomplished and the over-committed teacher has trouble deciding what to work on and easily slides back into their comfort zone. My suggestion is to pick a couple areas of focus and do them well. By narrowing your selections you help ensure that you can actually achieve your goals.
Along this line it’s worth taking the time to lay out how you want to achieve these targets in a concrete, specific way. Want to really get to know your students right away? Fantastic. Pick that as an area and take immediate action by conducting a student survey in the first couple of days and making a commitment to knowing everyone’s name by the end of the first week. Students react very strongly when teachers care about them as a person in addition to their academic success.
The most important part of starting the year off strong is to be selective with your goals. By all means you should set ambitious goals, goals that force you to stretch and grow as a professional, however, it is important that those goals are also achievable. Too often in education we set impossibly high standards and are forced to settle for less than success. By setting high standards that are also still attainable you begin creating a repeatable positive feedback system. You will feel good when you accomplish your goals, and that will encourage you to keep setting goals as opposed to the disheartening feeling of having to continually pick yourself up when you fall short of too-lofty aims.
Pick two targets and structure your approach in the following manner:
- Write your intended goal in clear, specific language. (I will know all of my students as students and the context they bring to the classroom.)
- Create specific, time-bound, criteria by which you can measure your progress. (I will know all their names by the end of the first week. I will know at least one of their interests by the end of the second week.)
- Ensure that your goal is actually achievable and realistic. (Is this something that you actually have control over?)
- Now share your goals with someone that you trust so that they can help hold you accountable. (Want to really provide incentive? Tell them you’ll pay them $20 each time you don’t meet your goal.)
- Once you achieve your initial goals, set new ones and repeat the process.
In the spirit of transparency and accountability I will demonstrate with one of my own goals:
- I will create positive working relationships with the novice teachers on my caseload and normalize my presence in their classrooms.
- To this end: I will meet face to face with each teacher on my caseload in the first two weeks. By the end of the third week of school I will observe all of my teachers while they are teaching.
- This is well within my control. It requires that I effectively schedule all of my teachers, and develop trust with the teachers new to my caseload.
- I am telling my blog readers, and I will be telling the other members of my mentor team.
Teachers are regularly encouraged to do it all or take on more than is manageable. You need to remember that it is ok to say no, limit your scope, and focus on doing an excellent job within that area of focus. This will allow you to give serious thought to what you are working on, and will allow you to go through the process thoroughly. Once you achieve your specific goals, you can then set new goals that help continue your growth. Growth is a continual process, and only by staying committed to a trajectory of improvement will we achieve the levels of success that we want.