Professional Goal-Setting for Teachers | Steve Barkley

Teacher Professional Goals

Several of the districts I am working with have a policy that requires teachers to set yearly professional growth goals. I have spent time with building and district leaders examining how to maximize the return on investment in these plans.

How can administrators support teacher learning and change as a payoff leading to increased student success?


While the term “goal” is used to describe this process, I often find that an activity is frequently agreed to rather than a goal, for example:

  • To provide more timely feedback to students from formative and summative assessments.
  • To improve assessments in Algebra 1 and to ask more critical thinking questions and encourage broader discussion with connections to the real world and other aspects of the curriculum.
  • I would like to tailor my lessons to differentiated needs through the instruction I give and the scaffolding I provide.

My thinking is that professional goals should describe a desired student outcome and illustrate a backwards process for identifying teacher learning/development to achieve that desired outcome.

Here are some questions that could be explored to find an area of focus for a professional goal:

  • What information do you have about any school-wide or department/grade level goals for the coming year?Are there any new programs or curriculum modifications occurring? How closely do any of these items connect to your work with students?
  • Identify times in the past year when student’(s’) (as a class or groups of students) achievement/success did not reach the level you had hoped for?
  • What available data should you review to identify patterns or raise questions for exploration concerning student outcomes?
  • Are there areas of student progress/outcomes that are of interest to you that are not currently being measured? (Example: perseverance, empathy, or collaboration)

Here is a process for planning backwards from that desired outcome to build a plan of action.

planning backwards to action chart

Implementing the plan can be guided by these steps.

Implementation Plan Steps: Assess, Implement, Document and Assess

A timeline might be built around this process.

Timeline Image

Often teachers work from a belief that they will be “evaluated” on whether or not the goal was met. This can lead to unchallenging goals or “controlled” goals (activities). The value of professional goals should be in the process and the teacher learning that emerges from the process. Here is an understanding I developed with one system:

The purpose of the goal setting process is to promote teacher learning driven by a desire for increased student success. Therefore, a well-executed plan to achieve a goal of increased student success that came short of the desired student achievement could be deemed successful. Did it provide increased teacher understanding, insight, and skill that perhaps leads to a new plan the following year focused on the same student outcome? Are there insights that can be shared to enhance learning for colleagues?

Jean Ross, writing in Sloan Management review from MIT in,  “Why Hypotheses Beat Goals”, suggests that instead of asking “What is Your Goal?” we ask, “What is Your Hypothesis?” She states, “Hypotheses can force individuals to articulate in advance why they believe a given course of action will succeed. A failure that exposes an incorrect hypothesis which can more readily convert into organizational learning.”

I like the idea of teachers carrying out a personal goal built around a hypothesis, perhaps seen as action research. The accountability is based on implementing the process and learning rather than meeting the “outcome” goal.”

Related Podcast: Rethinking Goals as Hypotheses

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