In my life thus far, I’ve had quite a bit of experience with goal setting. I had meetings with my ski coaches every fall (and bike coaches every spring) to set goals. I had strength and agility standards to meet. I had race series I wanted to qualify for and top speed records to break. In school, I had sporadic G-T (gifted and talented) meetings to talk about my academic potential. I wanted to be good enough for top scholarships and universities.
When I went to college and learned a bit about writing grants, I encountered a whole different way to think about goals and measuring progress. I learned about SMART goals – goals that were Specific, Measurable, Attainable (or Action-oriented), Realistic (or Relevant), and Time-bound. I learned to laugh at the girl who had eagerly told her coaches she wanted to ski in the Olympics. That wasn’t a realistic goal. I had no benchmarks between where I was and that end point.
And then I became a teacher. Teaching is FULL of goals. Standardized test score goals. Building-wide goals, department goals, individual goals. Goals driven by data, by current trends, by whoever your evaluator might be. Goals born out of professional development and dreams of what my classroom could (should) look like.
This is the first weekend of my spring break and I’m finding myself looking back at a lot of goals I made in September, shaking my head, and laughing ruefully. Maybe it’s because it’s March and I’m exhausted, but those goals seem completely ridiculous to me right now. I feel a bit like I’m looking at the girl who wanted to go to the Olympics. You wanted to have every assessment planned before you started the unit? Yeah right. You wanted to call parents once a week, ha ha. You wanted to incorporate formative assessment into your classroom on a regular basis and put learning in the hands of the students; what a sweet thought.
For this first weekend I packed up and came home to Steamboat. I’ve written a bit before about how absolutely wonderful it is to come home; Mom cooks, Jeffrey teases the life out of me, I play my piano and laze around in my Hufflepuff sweatpants. (What, you don’t have Hufflepuff sweatpants?) And I knit. Mom and I sit on the couches across from each other and duel with our knitting needles. And while we do this, we spend hours talking about anything and everything.
Last night we talked about my dream classroom. We were talking about all those goals at I had in September – students being meta-cognitive about their learning, awesome leveled assessments, and about differentiation. Especially in Anatomy and Physiology, I have students with completely different purposes for learning in my room. Some kids need another science credit to graduate or had too many free blocks. Some kids want to be neurosurgeons and are applying for pre-med programs. Some want to be personal trainers or dieticians, and some are just curious about why they get hiccups.
So we started building this dream-classroom, with strong class culture and student choice and opportunities for everyone to learn and grow. But instead of being inspiring, this felt crushing. How on earth was I supposed to create something like this?
For one thing, I trained to be a MOLECULAR biologist. I can tell you a bit about proteins and biochemistry. I can’t name even half the bones in the body. I don’t know what most hormones do. I reread the textbook before every unit so I know what on earth I’m talking about. For another thing, I’m already overwhelmed just trying to make sure I have a lesson every day for them, let alone an awesome lesson or a creative project or multiple options for them to explore. If I’m struggling to meet the normal expectations of a teacher, how do I ask myself to do more?
I know a lot of this feeling is because it’s March, and like I mentioned earlier, I’m fried. In my rant, I snapped out that I don’t need to be looking at a dream classroom. I need to be figuring out something that’s realistic for me to do for the rest of the year. Mom came back with equally valid logic; in order to move forward I need something to shoot for. It was past my bedtime and I was cranky (and I knew it), so I subsided with a grumble and took myself to bed.
This morning, we got up early and snowshoed up to the top of the gondola. It’s not an easy hike; it’s only just about two miles but over 2000 feet of elevation gain. This morning it started warm – about 36o F – and spitting corn snow. We hit the cloud ceiling about a third of the way up and it started snowing harder, with a gentle wind. My right eyelashes kept collecting ice crystals and my ponytail was completely stiff. The trees, lift towers, and other hikers were ghost-like in the fog.
I was delighted at the return of nearly-proper winter! It’s fun to pit myself against the elements and see how far I can go. I love the feeling of my hamstrings and quads contracting and releasing, moving me one step higher. I love the stingy feeling of blood pumping through my cold hands and cheeks. I think it’s hilarious how my hair turns into a demented Christmas ornament, all twisted and frosted.
One thing we definitely couldn’t see was the summit. Normally the lodge that also houses the top of the gondola looms over Heavenly Daze, the ski run we climb up. It can be a bit daunting, looking up at it and knowing exactly how far away I am. I tend to take tiny steps when I’m hiking up something steep, so it’s A LOT of steps for me to get to the top.
As Mom and I paused to catch our breaths, a woman on skins came up behind us. She stopped for a moment too, and looked over at us. “Crazy weather,” she announced. “It’s way harder to do this when I don’t know how far up I am!”
“We’re on the last steep pitch,” I offered. I’ve basically lived on this hill my whole life, so I was certain I was right. The other lady nodded and continued on with a cheery farewell. Mom and I started trudging up behind her.
I was wrong, in case you were curious. I thought we were a pitch higher than we were. Don’t be overconfident in low visibility, friends. My dad can tell an awesome story about how he got 180o turned around in a snowstorm while hunting one time. He thought his compass was broken!
The symbolism of all of this was not lost on me. I told Mom wryly that this sounded an awful lot like a conversation we’d had last night. She laughed at me and just continued hiking.
I like reading mountaineering stories, of climbers on Everest and K2 (that’s the picture at the top this time) and other famous peaks. It’s interesting to see how the summit captures their whole focus, how that goal can become consuming. Mountaineers are incredible because they allow their desire to get to that goal to carry them through huge difficulties, sometimes past when it would be smart to turn back. Often the writers or the people who watch them climb wonder what it is about the summit that drives the climbers to try superhuman feats.
Now, the top of the gondola is in no way comparable to the summit of K2, but it is still satisfying to get up there. It is much easier to sit around in my aforementioned sweatpants and drink tea. (Trust me, that’s what I’m currently doing, and I’m deeply enjoying it.) But I also enjoyed pushing myself past physical discomfort in order to reach that summit.
Mom (and the lady skinning up) is right – it’s easier when we can see the top. Just the same as it’s easier to practice a piano piece when I know what it’s supposed to sound like. It’s easier to attempt a new bread recipe when I know what it’s supposed to taste like. And it is easier to become a better teacher when I know what good teaching looks like.
So what I’m left with is a lot of questions. Why are goals sometimes motivating and sometimes not? When are expectations something to rise to and when are they a burden to carry? Where is the line between challenge and struggle? Is there a difference between a goal and a dream?
That’s your homework and mine, this time.