Baby-stepping back to school
By Lisa Lawmaster Hess
The beginning of the school year can be overwhelming — so many details to take care of! It’s easy to lose sight of the big picture when we’re overrun by myriad moving pieces. But when we step back and consider our big goals — what we want to accomplish this year — well, that too can be overwhelming. In fact, it can send us running straight back to those little details we’ve been drowning in because we can at least tackle those one at a time.
Setting back-to-school goals is just like making New Year’s resolutions. You sit down, you write out a bunch of things you want to do, and then you give up on them sometime before it’s time to set new ones.
If not, maybe you’re more disciplined than I am. If so, maybe it’s time to look at those resolutions in a different way.
The best approach to goal-setting is often a zoom-out, zoom-in approach. Zoom out: What do we want to do between now and the end of the school year? Zoom in: What does that look like each month? From there, it’s easy to create the baby steps we need to get from one to the other.
A few years ago I started a process of monthly goal-setting sessions. I set this up to be enjoyable and relaxing, sitting down with my calendar, a glass of iced tea, and a pile of colored pens to plan out the things I want to accomplish. At the end of the month, I take stock.
You might think I only enjoy this because I hit the mark every time, but that is absolutely not the case. If every goal were a do-or-die endeavor, I’d either hate this process or I’d simply set goals so easy they aren’t even worth writing down. And that is a waste of time.
If you’re dreaming of a school year that’s not the “same old, same old,” maybe it’s time to set some goals that help you break new ground instructionally, personally, and/or spiritually without needing an infusion of time and energy to make that happen.
Ready to give it a shot? Here’s one approach.
Set the scene. Choose a time, a place, and maybe even a snack or beverage. If you’re a morning person, you might sit down with a cup of coffee or tea one morning before everyone else is up. If you’re a night owl like me, that sounds like torture, so you might choose a late morning time. (Even for night owls, the end of a long day is a bit challenging for a goal-setting session.) Gather your materials — whether a legal pad and a pencil, a journal and assorted pens, a sketch pad and Sharpie markers, or a white board and markers (and an eraser) — whatever you need. Choose a writing surface that gives you plenty of space to brainstorm freely, and take a deep breath.
Relaxed and ready? Good.
Dream big. Jot down some of the things you’ve always wanted to do. You know, those things that somehow get pushed to the bottom of the list or edged out by someone else’s priorities. Maybe it’s a teaching strategy or two, or a classroom makeover, or a way of connecting with your students. Perhaps it’s something else entirely. The key here is that it doesn’t have to make the cut for anyone else — just you.
Then, write it down, draw it out, create a mind map, connect the dots — whatever works for you. Once your dream has taken shape, let it settle in for a moment. Are you excited? Overwhelmed? Ready to jump in? If you’re feeling just “meh,” keep dreaming. Otherwise …
Sketch the steps. The pathway to a dream is paved with baby steps. In logistical terms, this means breaking the enormous idea down into the smaller footsteps we’ll take along the way, otherwise known as goals.
To get started, decide how often you want to assess your progress. Halfway through the year? Set two goals: one for the midyear check-in and one for the end of the year. Every month? Set a goal for each month, and decide if those check-ins will come at the beginning or the end of each month.
As you set your goals, consider not only what you want to accomplish, but also how you’ll know you’ve accomplished it. Let’s say my classroom library has become a bit worn and outdated and I want to make refurbishing and updating it this year’s project. My goals might include taking stock of what I have, weeding out the books that are bedraggled or outdated, creating a wish list of books to add, finding sources for books that are inexpensive (or free), and making time to go shopping. Some of these are pretty specific, and I’ll easily be able to see that I’ve done them. Others require more specifics — details we’ll add in the next step.
But, before we do that, let’s make sure our goals are REAL:
- Reasonable: You can actually do them in the time you have and in addition to everything else that’s on your list without giving up sleep or anything else that’s important.
- Enticing: When you think about doing the work these goals entail, you’re excited because they’re projects you want to tackle. They aren’t simply copied and pasted from someone else’s list — unless, of course, you find that list inspiring.
- Attainable: The pathway from where you are now to where you want to go is free from major obstacles (at least as far as you can see).
- Limited: They might require a stretch, but overall your goals are within reach.
REAL goals keep us from becoming overwhelmed, get us to our destination faster and perhaps even better, and ensure that we’ll be able to check them off our list.
Draft the details. As a regular writer of lesson plans, you’re already familiar with this step. Examine each goal and break it down into baby steps the same way you’d break a lesson plan down into objectives. As you do this, consider whether or not each objective will yield a tangible product that helps you see your progress.
Let’s go back to my classroom library example with this in mind.
Goal #1: Take stock of what I have.
Smaller steps: Take 10 minutes after school one day each week to scan titles and organize the books. Repeat until existing library is organized.
Potential product: a list of the contents of the library (if you want one).
Goal #2: Weed out the books that are bedraggled or outdated.
Smaller steps: probably not necessary, unless this looks to be a time-consuming process. If not, this could be combined with Goal #1.
Potential product: trash can full of books.
Goal #3: Create a wish list of books to add.
Smaller steps: Create a document that will consist of new titles you and your students discover. Create a book request form the kids can fill out and submit. Take 10 minutes each week to check a favorite book source for recommendations. Set a date to evaluate student requests. Repeat as necessary.
Potential product: book wish list.
Goal #4: Find sources for books that are inexpensive (or free).
Smaller step: Set a time to do this research. Repeat as necessary.
Potential product: another list.
Goal #5: Make time to go shopping.
Smaller step: After creating the lists above, plan a time (or times) to shop for them.
Potential product: date(s) written in planner.
Feeling as though you can’t fit one more thing into the school year? That’s OK. Only you know where the line between possible and impossible lies.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed but also intrigued, consider stretching the goals out over a longer period of time. You’re in charge of everything here, including the time frame, and there’s no rule that says everything must be done at breakneck speed. What you’re seeking is progress toward something that matters to you.
Satisfied? Take one last step and write those check-in dates in your planner — in pencil. Obstacles will arise, things will get busy, and you might miss the mark. That’s OK. Better to wait until you can take your time than to try to cram one more thing into an overloaded schedule and wonder why you took this on in the first place.
When you’re ready to take stock, go back to step one. Set the scene. Gather your materials (including that beverage and snack of choice). Find a cozy spot, check your progress, and make adjustments where necessary. It’s OK to carry the goals you didn’t quite get to into next month (or maybe even the month after that). No judgment, no blame, no recriminations. Just one rule: Don’t forget to pat yourself on the back for taking this on.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor. Her latest book is Know Thyself: The Imperfectionist’s Guide to Sorting Your Stuff.
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