I started my career as a teacher in Houston, Texas where I had been placed after being accepted into Teach For America. I didn’t know much about teaching and would learn A LOT during the six week, high intensity Summer Institute. We were on campus at an elementary school for 10 hours a day either taking professional development classes, writing lesson plans, or teaching summer school classes. It was probably the most intense six weeks of my life. I’m sure that most everything I learned about teaching during Summer Institute has been forgotten but one thing has always held strong in my memory, the BHAG.
The BHAG, or Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal, was the cornerstone of my efforts as a Teach For America corps member. TFA corps members are usually placed into schools where students operating below grade-level standards are the norm. In fact, in my first class I had just over 10% (6/58) of my students who were on or above grade-level at the beginning of the school year. So when I sat down to set my goals for the year, I had to think Big, Hairy and Ambitious! I’d assume that most people would have been happy to have all of their students achieve one year of growth, especially as a first year teacher. However, I knew that wasn’t going to cut it. If I settled for one year of growth then I would only be sending 10% of my students to 7th grade prepared for success, I had to shoot higher.
One year of growth is great but it should be the absolute minimum that we are willing to accept, for ALL of our students. When we’re considering a class of students who are going to be with us for an entire school year, we can’t look at them and say, “I hope to have 80% of them achieve one year of growth.” If we are okay with that, then the other thing we are saying is, “I’m okay if 20% of my students fall behind this year.” When I was facing a reality that 90% of my students were already operating below grade-level standards, I had to be aggressive and think big. My BHAG for my first year as a teacher was that my students would grow, on average, two grade levels in reading during their 6th grade year. Guess what, probably to no one’s surprise, my students and I didn’t meet that goal. In my first year, my students grew by an average of 1.56 (I’ll never forget that number) grade levels, and I was crushed.
It took me most of the summer to get over the fact that I hadn’t met my goal. Fortunately, I had a wonderful Teach For America mentor who coached me regularly. At our beginning of the year meeting heading into my second year she celebrated me and showed me the real reason why we set BHAGs. See, while my class didn’t average two grade levels of growth in Reading they did, collectively, become a lot more prepared for 7th grade. Almost 75% of my students were leaving 6th grade on level, up from just over 10% at the beginning of the year. We had made significant progress toward closing the gap in reading for these children. The Big, Hairy, Ambitious Goal I had set helped us shoot for the stars, we may not have reached the stars but we landed on the moon!
Goals are meant to motivate us and give us a target that we can shoot for every day. Setting a BHAG ensures that we’re always going to have a target in front of us. In fact, there’s a very interesting Hidden Brain podcast episode that explains how goals that we don’t quite achieve are actually just as, and maybe more, motivating as goals we do achieve. So, it should be no surprise that the next school year I was right back at it, setting the same BHAG…and missing again (1.83 years growth). I never did achieve that BHAG, I always fell somewhere between my first and second year results, but I strived for it every year that I taught. It drove my practice as an educator and gave me purpose when my motivation was lacking. I was fortunate to learn early that not meeting goals was okay as long as the goals I was setting were Big, Hairy, and Ambitious!
What are your BHAGs for your students?