By: Jessica Michael Bowman
Ah, February. Gone is the effervescent, champagne flavored thrill of January that promised me a new, exciting beginning. The clinking of glass and joyful toasts are now drowned out by the steady rush of rainwater down the street as I trudge through the grey morning. A little lost in the bleakness that has followed those shiny days of the new year, I have exchanged new hope for enduring grit. Many of the resolutions I made just didn’t stick and have instead been carried away by a drizzly wind. As I turn the corner, the last remnants of streamers and confetti cling to the sidewalk before they are washed away completely, much like my resolve.
I had some lofty, honorable goals for 2020, to some of which I am still committed. I can happily say that I am not only packing my lunch, but I am actually eating it (come on teachers, you know). The inside of my car is still a toddler’s treasure trove of oddities, preserved by a fine layer of yogurt, but I have deep cleaned and decluttered much of our home. And while the workout app subscription I download has been cancelled, I have held myself to whole, healthy meal prepping and planning for my family on a weekly basis.
Still, these small victories often don’t feel like enough. I weigh them on the scales of contentment and find myself lacking, always coming up short in something.
It’s only February, and I have already allowed obligations to steal from the joy I’ve accrued. I’ve allowed my professional self to be robbed of the things I am most passionate about. Blogging, facilitating PL communities, and setting aside time for my own growth have all taken a backseat to the convenience and demands of everyday work and life.
For the first time in weeks, I have turned my attention back to the vision board (yes, I’m one of those) in my office and felt a sharp pang of defeat. If I’m already stagnating this early into the year, how will I possibly accomplish all that I’ve intended to do?
I know. So far this post is almost as bleak as the current weather.
Hear me out here, because this is, overall, a message of hope and encouragement. It’s in these dismal days that I’ve realized one of the greatest gifts we can be given is to fail in meeting our goals. We have to acknowledge the struggle before we can hold on to hope. Sometimes it takes realizing the space you’re in to shift your perspective and refocus your energy. It’s a lesson that is shaping my personal life and informing my teacher lens.
Shifting My Perspective, Refocusing My Energy
But first, back to that sharp pang of defeat. As I revisited the goals I’ve set for myself in 2020, things got dark for a moment. I am a detail-oriented person, and I can get lost in the minutia. Couple that with my perfectionist tendencies, and not meeting my goals and then some can lead me down a rabbit hole of self inflicted disappointment and frustration.
On this particular day, I had just come from co-conducting goal setting conferences in a classroom. One of the students we had followed up with had not met, or even been working toward his goal. As I stood, faced with my unmet goals and wallowing in a miserable, yet comfortable cocoon of self-pity, I suddenly thought of that student. Did he feel this same way? The thought that he might be experiencing similar waves of disappointment in himself or frustration with his progress made my heart sick.
It stings to feel like we’re not where we hoped we would be. Feeling less than others or like we are missing the mark is universally human, and yet so personal at the same time.
I think it’s easy for educators to nod in solidarity when we hear our colleagues lamenting about keeping up with all that we have to do and be. We understand the stress and scrutiny that our profession is under, as well as the sacred and fulfilling nature of our work. We are not just educators – we are parents, siblings, community members… we have lives that demand our talents, time, and gifts as well.
And so do our students. So in that moment, confronted with my own reflection about the role and nature of goal-setting, my question was this:
How do we help our students set, maintain, and reach goals in ways that value, support, and champion them?
Not sticking with my resolutions and falling short of my goals really rattles me, but meeting them? Well, then I’m floating on cloud nine, feeling unstoppable. I find myself to be more motivated and therefore more likely to continue to push forward, to commit to new goals and strive to accomplish them.
Like many educators, I want that same experience for my students. I firmly believe that we can model the ways in which we set goals with and alongside our students after the ways in which we set our own professional and personal goals.
Individualized goal setting in classrooms has so much to offer teachers and students. At its core, it provides a means for teachers to deliver differentiated instruction to each individual student, that is specific to his or her needs. It also builds strong teacher-student relationships built on mutual trust and teamwork.
Goal setting that is individualized and done alongside students, not for them, also upholds student agency and autonomy – amplifying their voices, providing them with choice, and increasing their motivation. Rethinking that way I introduce and maintain goal-setting in classrooms has truly transformed my teaching, but above all – students’ learning.
With that being said, here are some of my classroom-tested tips!
5 Tips for Practical Goal-Setting
Bring students in on the process.
Goal setting alongside students is transformative. When first dabbling in reading and writing goals, I tended to assign goals based on what I knew students needed to work on from formative assessments. While students were matched with attainable, specific goals, there wasn’t much motivation behind reaching them. Like the strength training workout plan I paid for and only used once, there just wasn’t much buy-in, so there wasn’t any pay-off.
However, beginning goal-setting by researching what students want to work on (also guided by what I know they need as a teacher) personalizes their goals. And the motivation! The increased ownership of the goal sets students up for success from the beginning. They have agreed that it’s something they’re invested in working toward, with my consistent feedback and guidance, and are more likely to commit to it. Whether you choose to confer about what each students needs or use a self assessment questionnaire/rubric to guide how you set the goal, make it a conversation – not an directive.
Keep it authentic.
Think back to the resolutions you’ve let go. What didn’t work about them? Were they too big? Not specific enough? Did you lack the tools or strategies you needed for success? When I reflect on what helps me meet my own goals, I then transfer this thinking over to goal-setting in the classroom. I would never launch into working toward something without a clear picture of where I’m heading. I also wouldn’t set a goal that’s not timely. If I don’t give myself an idea of when I should meet this goal, or keep track of my progress along the way, I know it’s doomed to the same fate as the capsule wardrobe attempt of 2018.
If I wouldn’t place an expectation on myself when setting my own goals, why would I place it on my students? Lead with authenticity, borrowing from the ways in which successful people commit to and reach their goals, and show your students what this looks like. It will help them stay on track, and ensure they apply goal-setting to their real world experiences outside of the classroom. To help inspire them, I keep my own reading goals and strategies in my reader’s notebook to share with students, and I can’t recommend this enough!
Make it visible.
Now, not everyone needs a “vision board,” although I will admit that mine does keep me inspired and focused when I need it most. For me, “making it visible” includes sharing my own goal setting practices and strategies in the classroom, and then encouraging students to do the same. Some classrooms like to display their goals collectively, or create interactive displays that allow students to show how they’re tracking their goals and moving through a process.
Now that I’m using the steps for goal-setting conferences from Jennifer Serravallo’s A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, I’m passionate about leaving visible reminders for individual students during the link. These tend to be little sticky notes that remind students of their goals, as well as the strategies we’ve worked on to meet them. I like to make them look almost like mini-anchor charts, with little visual clues and aides. At the end of the link, I then place them in students’ reader’s notebooks to refer to as they continue working toward their goals. This helps students notice and name their goals and strengths, as well as encourage them to monitor their progress. When I crouch down beside a student and ask, “What are you working on as a reader?” it makes my heart skip a beat when they reply with specific, self-selected goals!
A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences has completely changed my conferring game! I draw upon Jennifer Serravallo’s work daily in my coaching cycles.
Create systems for management and organization.
Meal prepping and planning has been an unattainable dream of mine until this year. The mental load of motherhood is intense, and there is nothing more daunting to me than having a solid plan for feeding my family that doesn’t involve my near constant presence in the kitchen and/or store. In order to meet this goal, I had to do a ton of research (and by research, I mean plummet into the Pinterest meal planning rabbit hole) on systems that would help me organize and manage meals on a weekly basis.
I can honestly say that finding systems for managing and organizing goal setting was much easier, and far less time consuming for me. I suggest a weekly schedule that allows you to check in with each student, at least twice a week. A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences has a phenomenal “Planning Your Week” tool that helps to schedule conferences and small groups, so I typically use this and manage goal setting through one-on-one conferences and small groups. Once assessment and goal-setting conferences have been done with each student, from there conferring and teaching small groups provide opportunities to check in on students’ progress toward their individualized goals. Once a goal is met, the process begins again with assessing and setting a new goal.
Use clear targets and specific feedback.
I know myself, and I know that in order to complete any project, professional or personal, I need a clear picture of my endgame. Whether you’re thinking in terms of backward design, success criteria, learning targets (if you’re new to the work of John Hattie’s Visible Learning, you must dig into this), modeling goal setting, or using exemplars, it’s essential that you set clear targets for students’ aim. Taking the guesswork out of what it takes to be successful is one way to support students in meeting their goals. Instead of being mysterious, we can clearly articulate the goals, co-create learning targets, and communicate what success looks like.
One of the most compelling pieces of Hattie’s research that resonates with me is the efficacy of feedback. Understatement of 2020: feedback is powerful and effective. In supporting and championing our students towards their goals, we have to engage in processes of feedback. Feedback should take place in the learning, be timely, specific, and ongoing. I use conferences as pillars for feedback, both teacher and student. When I meet with students who haven’t met their goals, one of the first things I research is how much feedback they’ve received along the way. More often than not, students who don’t receive feedback to support their progress toward their goals don’t meet them. I’ve been there myself, thinking, I wish you would have let me me know I wasn’t headed in the right direction sooner, when it could have made a difference!
We, our students included, deserve to know how we’re doing, and what we can do better – as long as this feedback comes with ongoing support.
“The most powerful single modification that enhances achievement is feedback.”
– John Hattie
Full transparency: this post is coming from someone whose goal for 2020 was to blog more consistently and even better than in 2019, and I haven’t written a blog post since November. *insert facepalm emoji here
Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about encouraging you now to continue with the goals you’ve set for yourself. I’ve needed the same nudge to shift my perspective, to refocus my energy and tap back into my passion.
I’ll be venturing to Rocky Mountain National Park this summer, and I’ve set a new goal for myself – to be in shape enough to handle the terrain and altitude change for a five lake hike that will take most of a day. It’s daunting. While I know there will be indescribable, breathtaking beauty as I trek higher and further, I worry that I won’t have what it takes, or that I might let this goal go by the wayside and not reap the reward.
I invite you to encourage me, and maybe we can inspire each other – in ways big and small – to keep going until we reach our summits.
Jessica Michael Bowman is a literacy coach for Berkeley County Schools, unabashed bibliophile, and advocate of lifelong literacy. When she’s not coaching teachers, teaching students, or blogging for WVCTE, she’s probably crying over a book. Aside from literacy, her other loves of life are her traveling with her family and adding to her music collection.
You can connect with her on Twitter @JMichaelBowman5.