Big Goals

I skimmed a pretty good chunk of the Teach for America publication Teaching as Leadership as a senior in college for some anthropology essay. It seemed like a pretty good resource to me, but something didn’t sit well. I didn’t stop to think about it due to my need to whip out my essay and general lack of time to stop and think for a second.

Now that I do have a second, let’s think about it. Gary Rubinstein has an amazing blog which helps remind me of the sane people out there in the education world. He posted a series of blogs reviewing Teaching as Leadership and put coherent words and thoughts to what I was vaguely feeling.

The first chapter is about setting big goals, such as getting through 1.5 or 2 or 3 years’ worth of content in one year or 80% mastery of a subject, for instance. Reading this chapter made me feel like I could easily set these big goals, accomplish them, and change the world. Bam. Easy peasy. I suppose this is one of problems with TFA – making it seem like accomplishing Herculean goals are not only possible but fairly simple.

Back to the point. After reading Gary’s post, I became worried. The book itself states, “Yet setting a goal that is impossible for students to reach even with extraordinarily hard work might further undermine students’ shaky confidence, cementing their impression that effort does not lead to achievement and that they are ‘not smart’ enough to achieve in school” (36). The last thing I want to do is discourage students from learning by introducing them to failure due to my lack of teaching skills.

Great. So what to do? As Gary writes, it’s best to set small, measurable, reachable, frequent goals. Here’s where I think GLEs or CCSS can come into play. Re-write the GLEs as something students can understand in the form of “I am able to_____.” When students reach that goal, have a small celebration. Then it’s time to move on to the next one. Every 5 or 10 milestones means a big milestone is reached which warrants a big celebration that showcases their success, but always with an eye towards a larger goal – reading at  or above grade level, reading a certain number of books, getting 80% on some assessment…

I think that especially as a new teacher (let’s be real – I have no idea what’s going on. As Gary writes, “A new teacher doesn’t have enough experience to know the difference between a realistic big goal and an impossible one.”) it’s much better to play it safe with small, frequent goals that both students and the teacher agree are important that are part of a larger goal. Gary writes, “I think better advice would be to spend time really learning where your students are. Then set a small goal of achievement for your students. When they accomplish that goal, set another, slightly bigger goal. Keep doing that until the end of the year and you did a great job.” But if goals aren’t big, will students be inspired to achieve them? What’s the line between inspirational and not realistic?

2012 Teacher of the Year (who teaches middle school) Rebecca Mieliwocki says, “Share data and have students help set learning targets. I’ll tell a student, ‘You’re nearing grade level, but not quite there. How do you feel about that?’ And they’ll say, ‘I can do it,’ or ‘Can I go further?’ or ‘That looks hard for me.’ Set a plan together.” The goals don’t have to be huge but they need to revolve around standards. Tell students where they are and then help them reach the next goal. If they’re at a 4th rather than 6th grade level, help them get to 5th grade level first. But then how do you tell students they’re way below grade level without discouraging them?

Here’s the catch, though. Shouldn’t the first few weeks if not days be spent exciting your students to learn? How can you get them excited and encouraged to set their own goals if you don’t know where they’re at? Maybe a better question is how do you get your students excited and invested at the beginning of the school year?

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