So, it’s the beginning of the year and all around I’m hearing conversations about New Year’s Resolutions. One friend is going Paleo, another is doing Cross Fit, and still, another has decided she’s going to read 100 books in a year (which might be doable if you include graphic novels and audiobooks–which I think are both totally valid).
This is a time for fresh starts. The darkest days of the winter are already over, even if it’s a brutal 36 degrees here in Salem, Oregon (feel free to mock me if you live in the Midwest).
But the teacher calendar is a little different.
For most of us, January is a mid-year point. We’re halfway through the marathon of teaching. Even after a Winter Break, you’re likely tired. Really tired. For all the peppy, feel-good memes on social media about getting excited to jump back into teaching, it’s okay to feel a little haggard right now. This job can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining — even when you love it.
And yet, this is also a chance to do a mid-year reboot. It’s a chance to take a creative risk. Some of the most innovative current classroom teachers I know use the mid-year point as an opportunity to spark creativity and bring in a revived energy at the halfway point.
So, what does this mid-year reboot actually look like?
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A Fresh Start
When I taught middle school, I would always focus on one specific area where I could either change my practice or pilot something new. It’s a tradition I’m continuing as I teach at the university level. Instead of trying to do a massive overhaul, I focus on one single thing I can either pilot or change. With that in mind, I’d like to share a few reflective questions you might ask as you do a mid-year reboot.
What is one goal you want to accomplish?
With the new year coming up, there’s a good chance you’re coming up with some resolutions. Anyway, one of the things I’ve noticed is that most New Year’s Resolutions focus on a specific, tangible product. Run a marathon. Write a novel. Lose a certain number of pounds. You get the idea. While there’s nothing wrong with these types of goals, there’s another type of goal that is just as important: process goals. These are the goals that allow us to develop habits and rituals.
Here’s a brief overview of the two types of goals:
- Product goals focus on the destination while process goals focus on the journey.
- Product goals tend to be short-term but process goals tend to be long-term.
- Product goals are project-oriented while process goals are designed to build habits.
- Product goals stick to firm deadlines while process goals stick to consistent routines.
- Product goals define success by the completion of great work. By contrast, process goals define success as growth in one’s skills and abilities.
So, what does this look like? If your goal involves running, a product goal might be finishing a marathon while a process goal might be committing to run for 45 minutes every day. If you’re a writer, a product goal might be publishing a novel while a process goal might be a daily habit of 500 words per day. Neither approach is wrong. Both product goals and process goals are important for success. We need to get finish projects and build lasting habits.
Here’s a video explanation:
For the longest time, I focused on product-oriented goals. These goals were outcome-based, with a strong emphasis on finishing specific tasks by specific dates. An example might be, “Write one chapter every three days” or “post four blog posts per week.” Just to clarify, these goals were not extrinsic. They weren’t based on the success or failure of something I made (such as “write a best-seller”). Instead, they were deeply internal. These product-oriented goals worked on some level. I was highly productive. However, when I focused entirely on finishing a task, I didn’t enjoy the journey. Also, when a task took longer than anticipated, I would rush through the next phase and the quality would diminish.
On a more personal level, when I experienced unexpected interruptions, I found myself feeling irritated by the “unproductive” moments of life. Stare at the stars? There’s no time. I’ve got a chapter I promised myself I’d finish by tomorrow. Play an impromptu game of Uno with my kids? I have a project to finish.
A few years ago, I embraced process-oriented goals. Instead of saying, “I’m going to run 25 miles this week,” I said, “I’m setting aside 40 minutes five days a week to go running.” If I run slower, fine. If I run faster, okay. If something comes up and I can’t get it done, that’s fine. It’s not about mileage. It’s about setting a routine and forming a habit.
In other words, I’m being less disciplined about specific results and more disciplined about my schedule. Because I am doing fewer projects, I have more flexibility when urgent tasks come up and I have to change my plans. Moreover, I am able to work more leisurely on creative projects. There’s no pressure attached to it. When I placed the journey above the destination, I discovered that my goals were not destinations at all. They had become habits. They were sacred rituals that enabled me to do the creative work that I love without thinking too hard about results.
So, in the classroom, what is one process goal you want to achieve? What is one habit you’d like to form?
What is your one word or mantra for the year?
Every year, I try to choose a single word to guide my focus. I’m not sure where I heard about the “one word” concept but I found it helpful. One year, it was “enough.” It was a reminder that I am enough. I’ve done enough. I don’t need to keep striving endlessly. It was the same year that I “broke up with busy.”
Another year, I chose the word “present.” I found myself focused on specific projects and goals and I was missing out on my students. I was obsessed with accomplishing tasks on my to-do list. But this word reminded that I needed to learn to be present in the moment. Other years, I chose a short mantra. One year, I wrote, “Be bold but be humble” on a notecard as a reminder to speak up and to listen.
What is one thing you want to ditch?
It may be that you want to do addition by subtraction. Maybe you need to quit a committee that doesn’t bring any sense of joy or purpose to your life. It might be a certain set of expectations that people have for teachers. I remember the day I “quit late-night emails.” My wife and I both set a curfew for emails. We couldn’t check our phones or computers after six o’clock. This proved so challenging that I actually plugged both my smartphone and my computer in to charge at six and left them in the other room.
It might be something that you are doing for students that they could be doing for themselves. For example, you might want to pilot student self-assessments and peer assessments. This not only increases student ownership but it also frees up your time as a teacher, so that you can meet with students one-on-one, spend more time lesson planning, and ultimately have additional time on your own to pursue your own passions. If you’re interested, there’s a free suite of assessments in the Design Thinking Toolkit, which also includes this twenty-minute peer feedback system.
Perhaps there’s a classroom practice that you want to ditch because you’re not entirely sure it’s all that helpful. You might decide to take the next quarter and try abandoning reading logs just to see if students become more or less interested in reading. Or maybe you might ditch homework. If that’s not feasible, you could make it optional instead.
Chances are there’s something you can ditch and the start of the new semester is a great opportunity for ditching something.
What is one thing you want to redesign?
Revisit your classroom procedures. Consider how you might streamline your procedures and use elements of UX design to create a more logical and intuitive flow to your classroom. You might even have students meet together as a class and rewrite the classroom norms and create a new procedure chart.
You might also choose to redesign the space. It might be a chance to change up the seating in your classroom. Or you might want to do some redecorating. This is a chance to get student volunteers to help with the process at lunchtime, before school, or after school. I found that some of the more challenging, high-energy students really shined in this task and it helped me build a better relationship with them; which, in turn, helped them self-manage their behavior.
What is one creative risk you want to take?
What is your “moonshot idea?” What is that one big creative risk that you want to take? Maybe you want to start a Maker Monday challenge. Or maybe you want to do a divergent thinking mini-project. Or perhaps you’d like to try out a Tiny House project or do a curiosity-filled Wonder Day, where they get to explore any question they want. Or maybe this is the time you launch a Genius Hour project. Maybe you want to get started with content curation or student blogging or STEM projects. Perhaps you want your students to do Socratic circles or film documentaries or record podcasts.
The key here is to treat it as an experiment. It might work. It might fail. But ultimately, you will learn from the experience.
I keep a notecard at my desk that reads “this could fail.” It’s a reminder to myself to treat all projects as experiments. Think of it as a”get out of perfectionist jail free” card.
Maybe you want to find a creative way to affirm your students. I used to make it a goal to send home one positive note for every student every two weeks. I had a bank of positive phrases and an overall template for the letter in Spanish and English. I could then copy and paste a few key ideas. However, I then added a specific example that I had observed. I first began this at the midway point in my first year of teaching and I’m pretty sure I stole the idea from Ms. Jackson (no, not the woman from the Outkast song). When I first implemented this, students were cautious with it. Sometimes they got embarrassed by it. However, over time, they grew to love the notes. Parents and guardians showed up to our parent-teacher conferences on a positive note. Meanwhile, it changed my perspective. I began to look for specific positive things students were doing.
The bottom line is that a midyear point can be a fresh start. It’s a chance to pilot something new and to transform your practice. It’s your opportunity to take a creative risk and do something different. So, go for it. Use this moment as a chance to innovate in your own space.
I’d love if you would share your midyear reboot in the comments section below.
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