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Become a Better Teacher: Set Long Term Learning Goals

written by: Jackson Perdue • edited by: Elizabeth Wistrom • updated: 1/6/2012

Great teachers must always be improving. By setting long term learning goals for yourself you can grow into the best teacher you can be. Certain things about teaching frustrate you - you wish you were better. How can you create a plan that actually gets you where you want to go?

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    Great Teachers Set Goals

    Teachers often set learning goals for their students but neglect themselves. It's important to have similar goals for yourself as well. By setting achievable goals, you can keep yourself fresh and motivated year after year. In my conversations with teachers I admire and respect, longevity and love for the profession goes hand-in-hand with ongoing personal and professional development. Great teachers that last are teachers that set goals for themselves and work to achieve those goals.

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    Why Set Goals?

    Chances are you got into teaching because you wanted to do something meaningful with your life. You want to spend your life pouring into young minds and lives. You want to encourage your students, to help them achieve their potential. Your life before teaching may have done a lot to prepare you for classroom realities, but learning how to teach is a lifelong proposition. Many teaches say it takes four, five, or even six years to really get the hang of it. Unfortunately, many teachers also quit before then because they are exhausted and discouraged. Setting goals will help you a few ways.

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    Setting Goals Increases Morale and Teaching Ability

    Just having a goal in mind can keep you going. Many teachers are frustrated by their lack of classroom management skills, or their assessments, or their relationships with students and parents. This frustration can lead them to leave the profession they love (or thought they were going to love). But if you set a goal it gives you light at the end of the tunnel. Unhappy with your teaching style? Set a goal to get better at it. Wish you could be better at classroom management? Make that a goal. Simply setting goals helps you understand that the frustrations and complications of teaching are not these uncontrollable beasts waiting to devour your enthusiasm. They are areas for growth on your path to becoming the greatest teacher you can be.

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    Devising a Plan for Professional Development

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    Step 1: Check the Standards for the Teaching Profession

    Many states have identified standards for the teaching profession. That is, they have spelled out what they think makes a great teacher. Find your state's teaching standards; you can usually find them with a simple Google search for "state standards for the teaching profession" or "state professional teaching standards." You'll want to change "state" to whatever state you live in. The terminology varies from one state to the next - California calls them "standards for the teaching profession" and Illinois calls them "professional teaching standards." If your state doesn't have them, or you can't find them, just use a set of standards you can find. I teach in California so I use the California standards for the teaching profession. The point of the standards is really just to give you some idea of what you could improve. It doesn't matter too much which set you use.

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    Step 2: Rate Yourself on the Standards

    Go through the standards you found and rate yourself on every single one. This may take a while but it's important. It will get ideas flowing and help you consider aspects of teaching that are normally off your radar. Often the things we need to improve on most are blind spots; we're not good at them simply because we don't think about them. Standards will help you consider the elements of your teaching that are normally off the radar. Rate yourself on each standard with some scale that works for you. I rate myself on a continuum that includes "not present, beginning, intermediate, advanced." You may come up with your own criteria for each of those categories if you want, or use your own categories. Don't get bogged down here either, though. The main thing is for you to put down on paper some sense of how you think you're doing in these different categories. We do tend to over or underestimate ourselves, so if you have a co-worker or someone else that regularly sees your classroom teaching then it might be good to have them take the time to rate you too, or go over your ratings with them to get their feedback.

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    Step 3: Pick a Standard to Work On

    After rating yourself on the professional teaching standards, pick one to work on. Yes, just one. If you start picking more than one your efforts and improvement will become unfocused and potentially overwhelming. Rather than try to work on everything at once, take the time to really focus on one area of improvement. Maybe it's your classroom management, or lesson planning, or developing literacy in students, or creative lesson plans, or good group work; pick one standard to work on.

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    Step 4: Work on that Standard During Your Next Few Lesson Plans

    After identifying the standard you want to work on, keep it in front of you as you plan your next few lessons. Keep the standard in front of you and ask yourself how you can incorporate it into the lesson plans or unit plans you are working on. Write down what you're going to do in that lesson that is so different that will help you with that standard. You can even incorporate classroom management into your lesson plans. Many classroom management problems stem from lessons without enough to do, or too much of one kind of activity; so consider that in your planning.

    If you're not sure how to improve or "work on" the standard you've chosen, talk to other teachers you respect and ask them how they do it. That may not be their strongest aspect of teaching either but as you both talk about it you may come up with good ideas you can implement in the classroom. You could also consult teaching books and blogs that focus on the area you are trying to improve to get ideas and information on how to improve that area.

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    Step 5: Get Someone to Observe

    Find another teacher whose opinion and insight you respect, and who you will listen to. Ask them to observe you during one of your lessons in which you are working on the teaching standard. You can ask them to observe during their prep period. If they can't or won't do that, then at least find a teacher to go over your lesson plan before and after you teach the lesson. It's important to get feedback and insight from others who are in the same boat you are. Involving your colleagues and getting information from other teachers is essential to becoming a great teacher. Not only will you improve your teaching skills but you will probably leave encouraged and with a better relationship with your peers. So much of the discouragement in teaching comes from feeling alone, like nobody understands. Well, nobody understands your situation better than another teacher. Involve your colleagues in the improvement process!

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    Step 6: Evaluate Your Attempt to Improve at that Standard

    After you've taught the lessons in which you try to improve on the standard, sit down and evaluate how you did. What worked well? Why did it work well? What didn't work? Why not? Don't skip this part of the process, it's the key. Teachers that love their jobs for the long term are reflective. Don't just complain about students who don't care or blame the parents for your lesson not working. You can only control what you can control - so reflect on your practice in the classroom and consider what you can do to make it better. As you evaluate your lesson, be sure to focus on the elements you are trying to improve.

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    Always be Improving!

    You can repeat this cycle as many times as you want for as many standards as you want. If you want to keep working on the same standard, go for it. If you want to do something else, move on to another standard. But this cycle is one that will help you set and reach long term leaning goals. A reflective teacher is more likely to be satisfied with their job and more likely to be doing a great job. Teaching is tough!

    Teaching is also one of the most meaningful things you could do with your life. Don't you want to know that you are doing the best job you can as you shape young minds? You don't want to spend your life being frustrated by lesson plans that don't work and not knowing what to do about it. Identify areas for growth, make a plan to work on them, and then evaluate how your attempt at improvement went. This process, even if you tweak it to suit your situation (you should), will help you develop into an even better teacher. And that's not just great for you, it's great for your students. And aren't they the point? (Yes, they are.)