A few weeks ago, a woman came to talk to our staff. I think her intention was to inspire metacognition in elementary education, though she neither said that, nor did it show up in her Powerpoint (though perhaps it was in one of the many slides she skipped right over without referencing…does she know you can remove slides to tailor a presentation?). I’m just drawing that conclusion because she triggered an avalanche of deep reflection in me, including thoughts about whether teaching is a good fit for me or like trying to cram that damn round peg in the jagged hole.
Jury’s still out on that. It depends on the day.
Somewhere near the middle of this “Professional Development opportunity”, between when I was still trying to be a good sport and make sense of things and when I was nearing tears of screaming frustration, the speaker made a passing comment about goal setting. I think this was after she threw the statistics and stories about how destructive bad teachers are to students and either she meant the implication that there was a reason we needed to know this, or she totally didn’t get it. I’m not sure which is worse.
Anyway, she said something to the effect of “As adults, we set goals for ourselves all the time. We set goals to lose weight or to get something done. Don’t you think kids need to learn to set goals and learn to identify the steps they need to achieve them?”
Let’s move the past obvious answer. Yes! Duh! Of course!
Let’s also move past the bowls of chocolate and candy corn that were out on the tables…where we had been sitting for two hours feeding our own anxieties, though that’s closer to my point.
I was struck by her initial assumption, that we, as adults, all know how to set reasonable goals. I was so struck by this that I was stupid enough to raise my hand and point out that I didn’t think I was very good at setting goals, at least not reasonable, achievable goals. Probably not the brightest of moves on my part.
But since then, I’ve been thinking about it. Goal setting is one of those fine arts that we all wave about as if it were an IKEA canvas (Everybody can have a copy!), but it’s not that simple. First, goal setting requires desire and perseverance. You have to want something enough to stick with it. You also have to know how to break a big job down. Into human sized pieces. And you have to do them. Then you have to know when you’re there. It sounds simple, which of course is the part we teach the kids. What was that about those who can’t do, teach?
Most of my life, when I’ve set goals, I begin by choosing something the size of a skyscraper and then biting into the side of it. Then I’m pissed and demoralized that I can’t will myself to somehow make myself larger and able to achieve it. Plus, my teeth hurt. Then, I circle it for a while and either abandon it for some other equally over-sized goal or I just go inside and screw around on the first floor for a while, pretending to ignore the fact that I really want to get all the way to the top.
Another excellent strategy I’ve employed is to choose goals other people have set for me. Those are fun and easy and I’m pleased by them right up until the point at which my subconscious starts laying my own private expectations on top of them. And then I can’t remember whose goal it was in the first place.
Honestly, I’ve spent most of my life paring things I’m already good at with things I generally like to do. Just kind of puttering around and getting some nice things done. It’s a nice life, but the stupid Professional Development lady is right. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could teach these kids how to set and achieve their goals?
Writing has revealed itself to be one place where there is a motivation to risk new habits. At first, my goal setting strategies consisted of telling myself I had to do something every day (write a certain number of hours, type a certain number of words, achieve a some number of pages…I tried them all), only to fail by the third day and spend three days berating myself. It eventually occurred to me that I could adjust the goal – I was the one who sat it, wasn’t I – as long as I kept working toward it. Because it’s not about the goal, not really. Just like it’s not about the diploma or the goal weight or the number of words in the novel. It’s story in it.
Even John Steinbeck knows. In “Travels with Charley” he says:
“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time. Then gradually I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.”
So there you go, speaker-Lady, I really don’t know how to set goals. I think I’ll keep it that way.