As new evaluation systems have crept up across the country, they’ve brought with them SMART Goals.
And I’m sick of them.
Here’s how it typically works: Teachers has to come up with their SMART goals for the year. They go through the criteria listed above. They come up with a terrible unambitious goal that they can make without difficulty. They achieve their goal. They get a good evaluation and a pat on the head for meeting their goals.
It’s Evaluation Theater.
Let’s break it down:
- Specific. Sure. Be as specific as you want to be about the goal. No skin off my nose. But does it always need to be? Specificity denotes the idea that you know EXACTLY the thing that needs to be done.
- Measurable. If it’s pretty specific, you can probably measure it in some way. No problem. But, again, do you always needs need to be able to have a clear measurement for your goal? If you can’t measure it, how is that inherently bad?
- Attainable. This is is where things start to break down. To say that the goal is attainable is to play it safe. If a chief criterion of your goal is that you can attain it, it means that nobody is going to try and aim high for their goals. There is nothing built into the system to encourage them to take risks. I’d rather have Inspirational goals than Attainable goals.
- Realistic. This is just to reinforce the Attainable strand. If it’s realistic, it’s something that’s within your reach now. You don’t have to work hard to get there. Why can’t we have unrealistic goals that we would need to work our butts off to achieve? If you fall short of an absurdly unrealistic goal, chances are you’ve probably made it further than you would have with the complete safe, realistic goal.
- Timely. Something you can implement and accomplish in basically one year. Teaching, though, is the work of a lifetime. It’s full of constant refinements and sudden changes.
You take all of these elements together and they lead to boringly safe goals.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
From the day I decided to make education my life’s work, I always set one simple, yet completely unspecific, unmeasurable, unattainable, unrealistic, and untimely goal. It’s Aspirational:
I want to be a great teacher.
That’s it. That’s the entire goal I’ve had guiding my career to this point. When I started teaching, I didn’t know what it would take to become a great teacher, how long it would take to become great, my chances of flaming out along the way. I didn’t realize that this kind of Aspirational goal is insidious in that it its goalposts keep moving, always moving backwards, so you have to keep on pushing forwards no matter how much work you put in and how much you improve.
But I also didn’t realize the power of having such a simple goal in mind could bring clarity to the things I would do and the decisions I’d make. With an Aspirational goal, it’s possible to ask yourself, “Does this move me closer to becoming a great teacher?” If the answer is yes, move in that direction. If not, move along. Having a wildly crazy goal that you’re not sure you’ll ever reach can encourage you to work tirelessly to do your best. It’s the kind of thing that colors your work not in short bursts, but over a sustained, interesting life.
Aspirational goals are also much more forgiving than SMART goals. The timeliness of the SMART goal means you have little room to maneuver if you make a mistake or follow the wrong path. The Apsirational goal allows you to realize you’ve made a mistake, take the time to ponder what didn’t work, and then use that as a learning experience from which to move forward. I was a terrible first year teacher, but the lessons I learned from that year sustain me to this day.
Aspirational goals can also shift over time. Having left the classroom this year, I’m doing a lot of thinking about my goals and purpose. Does this shift help me to meet my Aspirational goal? It’s a bit of both, probably. But it also opens up new avenues for what my goals can be. As I’ve adjusted to my new role and responsibilities, I’m finding myself shifting from the short-term thinking needed to survive a change in work and moving towards long-term planning and ideas for how I can both move myself and my organization forward. It’s the work of years, and I don’t think I’ve figured it all out yet, but I know I’m not very interested in playing it safe.
And I still want to be a great teacher. Someday, I might get there.