A school principal working with her teachers
For Administrators

School Leaders: Setting Realistic Goals with Your Teachers

By The Room 241 Team November 13, 2018

Goal setting is a powerful practice to help build self-confidence, motivation, and success. When school leaders work with their teachers to build schoolwide, classroom-level, and personal goals, they become guides in a powerful process of transformation, allowing teachers to elevate their practice, encourage the advancement of their work, and better manage their professional lives.

Improvement vs. innovation

When creating school and staff goals, it’s important to ask the right questions. Not all goals require significant innovation, but merely steps toward improvement. Improvement utilizes the same practices but it’s done more effectively. Innovation means doing things in a completely new way and perhaps ending some current practices.

Steve Barkley, who assists school districts around the world in improving their practice, suggests that schools come together to ask the following goal-setting questions:

  • “What vision does the leadership team share regarding goals for student learning?
  • How do students’ experiences in learning and teachers’ roles in designing need to change for the desired learning outcomes to be achieved?
  • What desired outcomes can we achieve by improvement?
  • What desired outcomes will require innovation?
  • As a leadership team, how do we engage the staff in considering our school’s vision for learning?
  • What commitments do we as a leadership team want to make to creating action plans that move us closer to the vision?”

Mindful intentions

According to Robert Thomas, the executive director of Mindful Schools, “The meaning of the word ‘intention’ is ‘purpose’ or ‘attention.’ It also means ‘leaning toward’ or ‘stretching into.’ It’s a sense of fixing our mind purposefully around something. The power of intention comes from being able to use our mind to orient ourselves to that which is most important.” School leaders can lead their staff to become more mindful and aware of their intentions and goals. “I’d like to really encourage you to…really ask yourself that question: what is my deepest intention?” says Thomas. This can be done by incorporating an in-school mindfulness/meditation practice, through writing activities or even circle talks during PD time to surface intentions and shape and mold staff goals.

Transformational leaders rely on their staff members to have an important stake and voice in the vision and intentions of the school. Identifying and staying connected to intentions — at the leadership and classroom level — allows schools to continuously work toward goals rather than just react to crises.

“As I grew in the principalship, I came to the gradual realization that a random and haphazard approach to events was not compatible with effective leadership,” says Baruti K. Kafele, a former principal in New Jersey, in his book The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence. “I needed to ‘step up my game’ in a big way — to think and act with intentionality. In fact, over time, ‘intentionality’ became my byword. I learned that if we as a school community were going to meet all the pressures and demands that were thrust upon us, we had to be able to spend our days acting on our intentions rather than reacting to situations.”

Wishful thinking vs. theories of action

School leaders can help shape the framework for goal setting, and set up a school for success by understanding the difference between wishful thinking and attainable, well-planned goals. “If I set a goal that ‘The percentage of students meeting a standard on the end-of-course exam will go from 62% last year to 82% this year,’ there’s a good chance I’m incorporating some wishful thinking. Why should that score increase occur?” says Justin Baeder, director of The Principal Center.What actions have I taken to bring it about? How do those actions align with what it’ll actually take? Do I have evidence that this particular set of actions will, in fact, produce that type of result? If we don’t have answers to these questions, we just have wishful thinking — not the powerful goals we may think we have. If we’re going to see a change in results, we need a theory of action — a hypothesized sequence of events that could reasonably produce the change we want to see.”

If a school leader creates a school-wide goal of improving graduation rates by a certain percentage in two years, there must be several theories of action in place for this to happen. Baeder suggests using researched, proven strategies at the large-scale level. At the teacher level, “goals can link directly to instructional strategies and curricular emphases.” And at the student level, “goals can link to particular study strategies, behavioral efforts, and other aspects of learning that are under students’ control.” In the end, everyone’s goals are speaking the same language and working toward the same thing.

Going beyond the S.M.A.R.T. goal

S.M.A.R.T. goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Timely

But even the best S.M.A.R.T. goals can fall flat unless we can truly envision what the goal’s success looks like. Viv Grant, Director of Integrity Coaching in London, suggests asking the following questions when creating S.M.A.R.T. goals.

  • “What is the goal that you want to achieve?
  • Why do you want to achieve this?
  • What will it mean to you when you have achieved your goal?
  • When do you want to have achieved your goal?
  • How will you know that your goal has been achieved?
  • What will be your first steps towards achieving your goal?
  • What will be different?
  • What will you see?
  • What will you hear?
  • What will you feel?”

Finally, Grant reminds us that goal setting is not a standalone activity. It’s a process. “Remember that goal setting is an ongoing activity, not just a means to an end. Build in reminders to touch base to ensure they are still relevant, necessary, attainable, and on track to be achieved. These frequent re-visits can also give your staff a chance to re-focus on the goals in hand and the opportunity to reflect on next steps and successes so far.”

Setting goals for self-care

Healthy, rested, balanced teachers make better teachers. Teacher burnout is real, especially for those who teach students with trauma, and school leaders can help teachers set goals to manage their well-being, not just their workload. School leaders can help address compassion fatigue and stress by offering professional development around self-care and mindfulness.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Bring in a meditation or yoga teacher to lead the staff in some restorative practices.
  • Give your staff an outlet and a safe space to talk about the traumas they’ve taken on, and then provide training on healthy coping skills.
  • Invite a counselor or let the school’s counseling staff run a PD on trauma self-care.
  • Have your Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) share mindfulness strategies.
  • Engage your staff in a fun team-building outing.
  • Offer small-group counseling sessions to help those who give so much of themselves to others.
  • Work together with your staff to create self-care goals with weekly or bi-monthly sessions planned out to work toward those goals. Use this planner from Princeton University to get started on creating self-care goals.

The path to great leadership is mentorship

Concordia University-Portland’s EdD in Professional Leadership, Inquiry, and Transformation helps prepare leaders to usher their schools through the creation of intentional goals and to take part in their achievement. Effective school leaders not only advance their practice but help others advance as well, sharing tools and strategies to benefit the learning community. Mentoring is a proven practice that helps teacher retention and builds great leaders. “I currently work as an education specialist/curriculum coordinator for a private school and [Concordia’s] program has definitely made me reflect on my leadership style and some of the areas in desperate need of improvement within my leadership team,” says MEd graduate and current EdD student Denisha Brown-Gainer. “Through my studies, I have been able to understand and value the impact appropriate leadership can have on the success of a program, a school, the students, and staff. Leadership really does have the power to transform and should not be taken lightly.”

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