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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What’s in a Goal?

By Peter DeWitt — June 19, 2016 5 min read
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It sounds simple, doesn’t it? I mean...we all have goals don’t we?

Sometimes those goals have to do with bettering our time in a road race or losing a bit of weight for the beach that we gained over the winter. Other times the goal is to learn how to cook or to plant a better garden...or learn how to ride a bike or drive a car.

The last two are important for our students, depending on their age. We have all been around younger children who have been learning to ride with training wheels on, and couldn’t wait for the snow to clear so they could ride the bike without the extra help. And most of us remember being that impatient 16 year old who want to run to the DMV so we could take the test...one of the only tests we couldn’t wait to take.

But what about in school?

Are our students equally as inspired to learn something new or is school something to get through so they can go home and do something they really want to do. I remember Sarah Martin, the school leader for the Stonefields School in Auckland, New Zealand giving a keynote where she asked, “If our students weren’t required to show up every day, would they still come to school?

Do they have learning goals? Or are they told what they will learn every day because it’s the next page in a textbook or module?

Many times students come to school without positive learning goals. Russ Quaglia and Michael Corso (2014) developed the Aspirations Profile, which you can see below. That profile is divided into 4 different quadrants. If you look to the lower left you will see the Hibernation Stage. Students in hibernation come to school every day, make a minimal impact, and leave school without ever really engaging in the learning process.

Look over to the lower right hand corner and you will see the Perspiration Stage. Students in this stage are working really hard but aren’t entirely sure what they are working for. They are taking multiple subjects because they want to get them done, but sometimes the learning is lost.

The stage on the upper left hand corner is all about Imagination. Students in this stage have big goals and dreams, but they have little idea on how to achieve those goals and dreams, which makes them very different from those students in the Aspirations Stage because they know where they want to be and know exactly how to get there. In the work of John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, those students are called assessment-capable learners, and they have an enormously positive effect on their own learning.

Unfortunately, we don’t take enough time to develop goals with students, or even take the time to ask them what their goal is when it comes to school. Just by asking, we can increase the engagement they will have in school. We increase that engagement even more when we help them find ways to meet their goal. Because the greatest part of the Aspirations Profile is that it isn’t a fixed mindset.

What About Teachers?
Quaglia has been doing a lot of research with Lisa Lande (TVAIC), and they have found through their research that many teachers don’t feel as if their school leaders know their goals at all. It’s easy to set up meetings with teachers at the beginning of the school year and ask them their goal. It’s equally as important to write each goal on a piece of paper, in a notebook or on a Google doc, but leaders don’t always take the time to do it.


Leadership is hard and we get caught up in other issues when we are sitting down with teachers. Leaders have little time, so they spend that time making sure teachers understand new mandates of initiatives. Don’t get me wrong, there are many awesome leaders out there, especially on Twitter, but running workshops around the country has really opened my eyes to some leaders who care little about the goals of their teachers. They care about making sure their goals are followed by their teachers.

This all leads to a low level of self-efficacy (Bandura). Bandura found that teachers with a low level of self-efficacy feel that they don’t have an impact on the student growth that happens in their classrooms. It’s something I have explored more and more, because when teachers feel they don’t have an impact on the learning growth among students in their classrooms, why are they there? What’s happening in those rooms?

Unfortunately, when leaders don’t co-construct goals with teachers, or at the least, ask teachers what their goals may be, those leaders are contributing to the low level of self-efficacy that teachers feel. And just like the Aspirations Profile that Quaglia and Corso created for students, it can have the same meaning if you take the focus on students out, and replace it with teachers. We have teachers in every single one of those stages in our schools, and we know that this isn’t a fixed mindset. Good leadership is about engaging them.

Are we, as leaders, contributing to the growth of teachers so they fall into the aspirations stage or are our methods of leading contributing to why they stay in the hibernation or perspiration stage?

What About Initiatives?
One question that comes up around the co-construction of goals is in the area of district initiatives. “We can’t have teachers all going in different directions!” is what is often said. I agree. Teachers and students having their own goals, and district initiatives don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

District initiatives are often pretty large. Initiatives I come across often are in the areas of literacy, RTI or blended learning. All of these are worthy goals, and it’s easy enough for students and teachers to establish goals around literacy, RTI (teaching and learning strategies), and blended learning that will be beneficial to both the teacher or student, and the school community.

Unfortunately, initiatives are often announced (usually because test scores are low!) and then teachers have to fall in line, which means students have to fall in line too. No opportunities to have dialogue around goals are established, and everyone spends the year working in the perspiration stage until the next initiative comes along.

In the End
Take the time to talk about goals, even if they’re tied to an initiative, because hopefully the teachers were involved in establishing the initiative in the first place. Take the time to establish a goal as a school leader (i.e. flipped faculty meetings that will focus on literacy, RTI or blended learning, etc.), and talk about it at the faculty meeting.

Ask teachers what their goal is and write it down. Ask them to establish a goal setting process with students, so that students feel as though they have a voice in their school. Goals are important, but what’s equally as important, are being able to talk about our goals, and feeling like the school community we are a part of wants us to achieve them.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (2012. Corwin Press), Flipping Leadership Doesn’t Mean Reinventing the Wheel (2014. Corwin Press), School Climate Change (2014. ASCD) and the forthcoming Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.