Teachers: Do This to Keep Your Goals in Sight

Teachers: Do This to Keep Your Goals in Sight

My first day of classes is soon. Very soon. I’m up at four A.M. writing this, having woken from an anxiety dream about not having enough chairs in my classroom. Writing seemed like a good way to quiet my teacher-specific demons.

I’ve been meaning to write this post, anyway. Because I want to share a little trick I came up with. It’s something that will take you five minutes to do, but will help you set and meet your deep goals as a teacher this year. Not your professional development goals you had to write on some form and submit to your chairperson or assistant superintendent. Your deep goals. The goals that are close to your heart.

You’ll need three blank note cards and something to write with. On each card, you’re going to write a little pledge, and some notes on how to fulfill that pledge.

Then you’re going to find a place to put these cards where you can’t ignore them on a day-to-day basis. Putting your goals on note cards and pinning them up–maybe it’s not much of a trick, I don’t know. Not exactly a “life hack.” But I see it that way. Because, having taught high school English for twelve years, I know that long-term goals have a tendency to melt in the wind by about mid-October.

This activity is one way to fight that.

I’m going to walk you through my own process as an example. At the end, you can adapt my cards, or write your own. Ready?

Seek Your Go-to Thinking Buddies

This summer, I discovered an amazing hashtag on Twitter: #PLN. Personal Learning Network. In other words, the folks I’m choosing for myself as a network of support for my development as a teacher. The people I’m excited to collaborate with, whose blogs I plan to read, whose ideas I want to borrow, adapt, and remix. Teachers who have mentored me, and whom I have mentored. My go-to thinking buddies. The key is that word “personal,” don’t forget. It’s the network of your personal choosing. I find that idea so empowering.

Your PLN starts in your own department. But it can extend to your whole school and, through social networks and professional forums, the whole world.

Also, by my reckoning, a PLN isn’t limited to persons living. Teachers of the past can be our mentors and collaborators as well. I count the essayist Michel de Montaigne, the director William Ball, and my own late grandmother as teachers in my PLN.

The trouble is that all this can be overwhelming. I have hundreds of people, living and deceased, in my PLN. So who do I turn to for what? I need to structure my approach. That’s one of the goals close to my heart: be more intentional and proactive as a collaborator.

So this year, I’m choosing four go-to thinking buddies. And I’m going to write their names and where I can contact them on a card. and I’m going to head that card with a pledge: I will reach out to a thinking buddy at least once a week.

Multiply Your Disciplines

My second goal goes hand in hand with being an intentional collaborator. I want to make it a point to run a super multi-disciplinary classroom.
That term, “multi-disciplinary,” is so abstract and static, though. So I’m turning the “multi-” into a verb. Multiply!

Think about this: when we bring Math into the History room, or Art into the English room, it’s not addition. It’s not, “let’s add in some discussion of paintings at the end of this unit on haiku.”

It’s definitely multiplication. In my head, I see it as matrix multiplication. In a History x English project, for instance, the students ought to be shown the ways those two disciplines are basically two sets of questions that all interact with each other:

By cross-pollinating questions in this way, your ideas as a teacher, and your students ideas, will multiply like rabbits. (Yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors like a drunken sailor.)

So I see multiplying disciplines as the way into more interesting, engaging teaching this year. Again, I’ll need to be intentional about reaching out to the other teachers in my PLN to generate and refine ideas. But I have faith in the benefits this effort will reap.

I’m going to write another pledge on a note card: I will multiply my disciplines in every instructional unit. And below that, I’ll list out some combos I’m excited to try, written as multiplication problems I don’t know the answer to.

Trust Your Students

There’s something I learned from William Ball’s book, A Sense of Direction, which really guides me when thinking about the teacher-student relationship. Ball talks about all the reasons actors — grown men and women in a professional setting — might begin acting like toddlers: throwing tantrums, crying, lashing out. Ball describes an “inner child” whose needs for safety must be met before the adult actor can be counted on for productive, creative decision-making as an artist. I directed plays and musical for a few years, and can confirm that only a cast who feels safe and cared for will give you brilliant work on stage.

After a decade of working with adolescents, I’ve realized that Ball might as well be talking about a classroom. When my fifteen-year-olds shout, act out, withdraw, or break down and cry, it’s not because they are “discipline problems.” It’s because I as the teacher have not made them feel safe to take the intellectual risks I’m demanding they take. Even if there’s emotional stress at home, kids will usually do great work for you in the classroom if they feel safe there.

I think a lot of the time, as teachers, we dismiss good teaching ideas because we’re worried the students can’t, or won’t, come along for the ride. This is so backward. We have to believe they are capable and willing. And when they present evidence to the contrary, when they say, “I can’t” or “I won’t,” we have to realize they are testing us — asking us whether or not we truly are on their team no matter what.

The third pledge I want to make, and post somewhere where I can look at it all year, is this: I will trust my students. I’ll write that on a note card, and beneath it, I’ll put a few positive reminders of what 15-year-olds can do when given the benefit of the doubt. Amazing things I’ve seen them do over the years. Maybe a couple names — the homeless girl who threw herself into set design elevations, the skater punk who wrote me an amazing research paper.

Time to Get Out Your Note Cards

So, these are the three goals I’m committing myself to this year:

  • I’m going to seek out my thinking buddies every week.
  • I’m going to multiply my disciplines.
  • I’m going to trust my students.

My note cards are going up on the back of a shelf next to my desk — a little nook that I can see but my students can’t. Here they are (with names of colleagues and former students blacked out for privacy):

I highly recommend these pledges. You can use my cards as a template, if you like. But you may teach a different age group, or have different professional responsibilities. By all means, figure out your own pledges.

And send them my way! I’d love to hear what your pledges are. Drop me a line. Really. Do it. If you’re signed up for the newsletter, you can just reply to any of those emails, and your note will go right to my personal inbox.

Let’s kick off this September right. Let’s help each other clarify our visions of good teaching. Welcome to my PLN!

2 Replies to “Teachers: Do This to Keep Your Goals in Sight”

  1. Peter, THANK YOU for this inspiration! I have made my goals! I would take a photo of my little green index cards, but I don’t think I can upload it here. I plan to tape these little cards to the side of my bookcase that faces the wall in room 206.
    1) I WILL MEET MY STUDENTS WHERE THEY ARE (for inspiration I have listed 3 students from last year whose talents, interests and passions I especially did NOT identify or tap into). 2) I WILL MAKE EXPLICIT CONNECTIONS BETWEEN OUR WORK IN CLASS AND STUDENTS’ EVERY DAY LIVES (examples–consider advertisements esp. in the context of different cultures, explore internet language–twitter, emoticons, text conversations. This is inspired by Gretchen McCullough’s book and podcast) 3) I WILL GET OUT OF MY CLASSROOM AND MY OWN HEAD BY MAKING BI-WEEKLY LUNCH DATES AND ARBO WALKING DATES WITH MY TALENTED COLLEAGUES.