Student Well-Being Opinion

Goal Setting: An Antidote to Stress

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — July 12, 2015 4 min read
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Too often we choose a goal for ourselves or our school and because it isn’t achieved quickly, frustration and stress replace passion and energy. Most educators end a school year knowing exactly what went well and what didn’t and have a good idea of why they think that is so. Summer comes and a more relaxed time and a step away from the school year pace allows for stress and angst to slowly wash away. Yet, while that washing away is a relief, it also a loss. Buried in that stress and angst, frustration and disappointment is good information. The year ahead holds promise only if we can draw out the wisdom gained form the previous year, share it with someone and let it inform decisions as the next year is on the horizon.

Here is a frustrating truth. Goals about change are often set and not met. It calls for leadership. Educators are overwhelmed with changes that come from outside of their control. The list is well known. No need to repeat them here. But no matter the changes, targets, and goals that come from beyond, the stress and frustration felt can be ameliorated with some basic leadership decisions. Begin with focus on goals that are chosen from within the school, empowering teachers to set their own goals.

A 2011 Harvard Business Review article entitled “Making Sure Your Employees Succeed” offers an avenue toward success for all. The headings are theirs, the comments are ours:

Connect Employee Goals to Larger Company Goals
Aligning the classroom goals to the school and district goals serves as a foundation for a common understanding that “we are all in this together.” Feeling part of a group whose common goals benefit students is a good antidote to feeling alone and frustrated and stressed.

Make Sure Goals Are Attainable But Challenging
Often, if a year’s results for students’ achievement are less than hoped for, setting goals for higher achievement is a natural choice. But, doing the same thing perhaps with more effort will only result in frustration and stress. Drilling down to the root causes and choosing to address one or all of those causes makes a difference. Helping teachers to discover and determine what to set as a goal can shift energy away from frustration and toward individual and collective success.

Create a Plan For Success
Here is one of the places we spend the least time and it is one of the most important steps. State the behaviors that will indicate steps toward success at the outset. In most goal setting, a step that is often overlooked is the plan for success. Taking time to declare of a set of circumstances that could possibly interfere with the goal attainment at the beginning of the process helps to avoid having those barriers stop progress.

Monitor Progress
If the goals have been chosen wisely, they are connected to the district goals, are challenging and attainable. A plan for how to meet those goals has been designed, the monitoring of progress is the time for reflection and feedback and coaching. It is in this step that doubling down or adjusting the course will support and guide toward success.

When Things Go Wrong
From the HBR article:

Very few of us reach our goals without some road bumps along the way. Build relationships with employees so that they feel comfortable coming to you if and when problems arise. If your employee encounters an unforeseen obstacle, the goal may need reworking. First, however, ask him to bring a potential solution to you so you can give him coaching and advice. If his efforts to solve the problem fail, you will need to get further involved.

What About Personal Goals?
Although not necessary or required, if leaders and teachers are willing or interested in sharing personal goals, the bonds are further strengthened. Regardless of role, we struggle with juggling childcare and work demands. Talking about how the leader or the school can help support those goals can not only contribute to relationship building, but to successful overall goal attainment.

When Goals Aren’t Met
No one likes to fail at meeting a goal. What is important in this step, and in trust and relationship building, is an honest analysis of why the goal wasn’t met, and how to do things differently next time. It’s a good practice for adults and in classrooms with students as well. Today’s failure serves as a lesson toward future success. It is not a place to remain. It is a place from which to spring forward for all of us.


Goal setting and goal attainment are locally controlled and can change how people feel about coming to and doing their work. Recently, a teacher told us he wished there were no changes next year. In his experience, each year brings new changes and they are exhausting. Being exhausted is disempowering and stressful. Spending time reflecting on years past to inform goals for the year to come, with support and guidance from leaders, can be the antidote and empower and energize. Who wouldn’t want that?


On planning your way around barriers:
Gollwitzer, P. (1999). Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503 (research on preparing for obstacles before they arise): http://www.psychology.nottingham.ac.uk/staff/msh/mh_teach ing_site_files/teaching_pdfs/C83SPE_lecture3/Gollwitzer%20(1999).pdf

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