Forget setting goals. Cultivate good habits instead.
This article was first published in HWRK Magazine in December 2020 and contains affiliate links.
I’m a huge fan of New Year. Not because of the celebrations (as if we’ll be doing much of that this year), but because they give us an opportunity to sit back and take stock. I like to use this time to think about how I can improve my teaching, so that the following year I can look back and see how I’ve developed. The key to this though seems counterintuitive.
I don’t set goals.
For me, goals are an unwelcome pressure and distraction. Worst case scenario, I don’t meet them and I feel like a failure. Best case scenario, I achieve them, feel great for a split second and then I worry about the next goal, as if the previous one doesn’t matter anymore.
For me, goals are a lose-lose situation and nobody needs that in their life.
So, instead of setting goals, I cultivate habits. In doing so, I don’t need to worry about hitting a certain target, or even measuring anything at all. It’s easy(ish). Last year I decided I would use more retrieval tasks during my lessons, after reading Kate Jones’ fantastic book, Retrieval Practice. I didn’t decide to put a retrieval task in every one of my lessons, or use it in a particular way, or to standardise the ways I would use them. I just decided to do it more often. No pressure, no worries.
It worked. Not only that, but I naturally began to do it more often as time went on. It became part of how I operated as a teacher, as I slowly found my own way of doing it. Now, I can look back on how my teaching has developed and I can confidently say that it’s in a much better place now than it was a year ago.
As far as departmental curriculum planning goes, there are ways you can encourage similar habits in your colleagues. Each teacher in your department could work on a particular strategy, tactic, use of resource, or whatever. Keep it simple though. For example, you could agree to try out some sort of questioning technique or behaviour management method more often. Or, you could ask students to complete a particular type of task more often, that appears to have made a positive impact in the past.
Your new habit doesn’t have to be tracked and it certainly doesn’t have to be observed or even checked at all by anyone else. The whole point is that by trying out a new habit, the teacher is free to take their time with it and do it in their own way and at their own pace. In doing so, any “data” (and I use this term VERY loosely) gained will be useful.
If you want, then any feedback on your and your colleagues’ new habits can then be discussed in a much more open and less formal setting than your typical Appraisal meeting, where there might be incentives to give a more “polished” version of reality than you otherwise would do. Avoiding untruthful versions of how it went can then lead to much more helpful conversations about how to implement any positives discovered across the whole department. You might also come to the conclusion that it doesn’t work, which brings me to my next point.
One thing to bear in mind, is the impact that any additional habit has on your existing ones. Every time I hear about teachers being asked to do extra things in their lessons, without dropping other things they’re already doing, I despair. You only have a finite amount of time and energy. We can’t afford to waste either one of them.
So, to help make space for any new habits, I’d like to offer you one piece of advice. You can take it or leave it, but for the last couple of years, it’s worked brilliantly for me.
Conduct a brief past year review. It’s simple and doesn’t have to take more than a few minutes.
Think back over the types of activities, resources, procedures, etc that you have worked with over the past year and ask yourself these five questions:
1. Which ones caused you the most stress?
2. Which ones didn’t seem like they were worth the effort?
3. Which ones did students do badly?
4. Which ones did you do badly?
5. Which ones could easily be replaced, improved or completely dropped?
If you can think of anything you’ve done in the past year that answers at least two of these questions then think about dropping it. If you can think of anything that fits three or more, then (if you can) you should probably drop it now.
Pro Tip: Getting your whole department to conduct the past year review might be a useful exercise to make your departmental operating procedures run a little smoother. But approach this with caution and try not to take it too personally if it’s your own pet project that everyone else wants to scrap. Nobody gets it right 100% of the time. Be ok with that.
So remember: Your time is precious. You have better things to do than to waste your time on things that cause more problems than they solve. You should do those instead. Setting goals might motivate some people, but we teachers have plenty of those in our lives already. Let’s just cultivate some better habits. They matter more.