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Aim for the low hanging fruit

4 min read


As leaders and learners, we want to set challenging goals — goals that our staff, students, parents and ourselves need to and want to reach.  We want goals to mean something, and, as those of us who have ever gone apple picking know, the apples towards the top are always tastier, and the feeling of success in picking them — without injuring yourself — can be beyond compare.

Yet, as proactive leaders, we also realize that goals that can’t be met, benchmarks that are too challenging to be achievable, are demoralizing. Experience tells us all that setting a goal that will never be met hinders community, as opposed to building it.

Therefore, it is important to build capacity for larger goals by employing a staircase of benchmarks rather than jumping from a baseline to a complex goal. Capacity-building is never easy; changing how people behave and act is often more difficult than the problem encountered itself. Yet, creating buy-in is a necessary part of any initiative, as a goal can never fully be achieved if stakeholders don’t believe in it.

How do you go from goal-leaping to building a culture of benchmark baby-steps? Here are a few thoughts:

1. Plan with the end in mind. It’s a lot harder to set small goals than it is to shoot for the moon. How will each of these minor benchmarks contribute to meeting a larger goal? How much time should be devoted to each step? How long should the entire process take? How can you avoid new initiative burnout? All of these questions are good ones, and truthfully, their answers depend on individual circumstances. What is consistent, however, is that the only way to build small goals into the work that you do is to carefully plan. By identifying where you hope to be and incorporating feedback from stakeholder groups, you can chunk out major goals into easier to manage small steps. The benefit of this is huge. By reaching a large goal through the completion of smaller ones, you can use the motivation and morale-boost that comes from meeting a benchmark to propel you to the next one. Meeting micro-goals in itself builds capacity, as stakeholders see firsthand that the path being followed actually has a destination. Never underestimate the power of a plan with small, determined, steps.

2. Delegate effectively. While no one these days seems to have excess time on their hands, educators, for sure, are always in a race against the clock. However, we can’t let lack of time be a crutch for ineffectively structuring goals. Yes, it might be easier to “keep tabs” on the progress towards one large goal, but is it really the most efficient use of your — and everyone else’s — time? Instead of being overtaken with the movement towards one gigantic initiative, it is better to delegate to members of your team with the strengths to address micro-goals. This provides for three important wins. First, it frees you up to watch the big picture and engage in the myriad of other wonderful opportunities you have as a learner and a leader. Second, it builds capacity in your staff to take on leadership roles, and further puts some of the decision-making in the hands of the truly informed. Finally, it positions the goal-setting process as a collaborative and distributed leadership experience. If our goal is for our school systems to be communities, what could be better?

3. Showcase success. Just because a goal is small, doesn’t mean it can’t be celebrated. In fact, you should celebrate the heck out of it, as long as you keep the celebration relevant and tied to the work that went into meeting the goal. This means informing all your stakeholders, letting the students, parents and staff delegated to overseeing the goal speak and write about their experiences, and contacting local media to get the word out. Never underestimate the power of the spoken and written word. Often, local media outlets are excited to report on positive changes in the world of education. Meeting a goal is never meaningless, unless no one knows it was actually met.

What’s most interesting about these three ideas is that they don’t require any additional resources to really utilize. In fact, you can put them into practice with the next small goal you set. Next time you pass by one of the staircases in your school, remember that reaching the next level is much easier with those small benchmarks in place.  It could be quite a difficult jump otherwise.

Fred Ende (@fredende) is the director of SCIENCE 21 and currently serves as Regional Science Coordinator for Putnam/Northern Westchester BOCES.  Fred is an ASCD Emerging Leader and along with writing here, he also blogs at ASCD EDge.