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Professional Development: What is a SMART Goal?

Jordan Catapano

Lewis Carroll – famed author of “Alice in Wonderland”said, “Any road will get you there, if you don’t know where you are going.” If you have no destination, then it doesn’t matter which path you take. But the opposite is just as true: If you do have a destination in mind, then it matters immensely which way you take. In fact, when there’s an end in mind, that final desired outcome dictates which steps may be necessary to get there. When I punch a location into my Google map and ask for directions, I’m given a few potential route options. If I don’t type in a location, then I’m given no route to follow. The same is true for the destinations we set for ourselves and our students.

Make Your Professional Development Goals SMART

Formulating goals increases one’s chances of achieving them. Studies have demonstrated that individuals who are more successful write down what their goals are. Mark Murphy writes in Forbes, “When you write it down, it has a much greater chance of being remembered.” This is due, he says, to the encoding in our brains the writing process helps promote.

But not all goals are created equal. We can casually write down a professional development goal we have for ourselves or our students, but this doesn’t mean it translates into specific action that leads to the intended outcome. Murphy asked study participants, if their goal “Is so vividly described in written form (including pictures, photos, drawings, etc.) that I could literally show it to other people and they would know exactly what I’m trying to achieve.” Few people could say this was true.

While there are a variety of ways to write your goals for your professional development and student outcomes that lead to success, one suggestion for you is to make your goals SMART goals. “SMART” is an acronym that helps identify five characteristics of a strong goal:

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Specific = What you state in your goal is concrete and straightforward. There’s little room for you or someone else to misinterpret what you’re representing.

Measurable = Your goal includes a measurable quantity of some kind. This is important because it helps you literally calculate whether you’re achieving it or not.

Achievable = Is your goal realistic? Goals should be fixed at a level that challenge us to grow without frustrating us into giving up.

Relevant = Your goal should be connected to your work with students in a way that supports overall objectives in your classroom and school.

Time-bound = We work better with due dates. Give yourself a due date on your goal so that you know you need to keep moving towards it.

So a generic, non-SMART goal might sound something like this: “I want to communicate with parents more often this year.”

While this is an admirable desire, there is little in this statement to work off of. What do you mean by “Communicate”? What results are you looking for? How do you know you’re achieving it?

When you make this a SMART goal, you give yourself a much more concrete destination: “To increase parent knowledge and involvement, I will make at least three phone calls to students’ homes each week to report on student progress and share upcoming classroom activities. I will do this each week until the end of the semester and keep a log of my conversations.”

Is it specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound? Yep. I know for sure what my goal is, why I’m doing it, and whether or not I’m completing what I set out to do. By the end of the semester I can look back and see how well I’ve accomplished this goal and how this may have impacted student outcomes.

SMART Goal Template

There are various processes for composing a SMART Goal. Here’s a simple template you can fill in to get the basic elements included in your statement:  “In order to ____(state relevance)______________, I am going to ____(state specific goal)________. I will measure my progress by ______(state what concrete activity you will do that can be measured/counted)______________ every _______(state how long this goal will last or how often you’ll measure progress)_____________.”

There are more thorough goal-setting processes you can go through as well. For example, you might consider composing multiple sentences that reflect on each SMART element, commenting thoroughly on how your goal will be measured, relevant, and so on. Goals can also be made with others – which of your colleagues will benefit from working together towards a SMART unified outcome with you?

Of course, don’t overlook the possibility of teaching students about SMART goals, too. While this may be important for your own professional development, it could be just as effective for students who are establishing their desired outcomes for a year or a given unit. Teach students the importance of goal setting, and show them how a SMART goal helps them target their attention towards a meaningful and measurable objective.

Goals Don’t Guarantee Success

While we’re on the subject of goal-setting, it’s worth addressing how things don’t just magically happen when we write down the right goal. Even if we have checked all our boxes and have our SMART goal written down, the work towards achieving it is only just beginning!

So don’t think of your goal – or the goals your students write – as a silver bullet to achieving greatness. Your goal must be revisited often to remind you of the work required to reach it. This includes allowing yourself times of reflection. Try posting your goal in a spot where you’re sure to see it (your refrigerator, your desktop, your bulletin board).

Also, a Harvard Business School publication reminds us that there can be drawbacks to goal setting. An over-focus on the setting of goals can potentially lead to “A narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.” Essentially, we need to keep in mind that our ultimate outcome is the success of our students. All of our practices – whether stated in a specific goal or not – should reflect our dedication to this ideal.

Make sure that you compose and work towards your SMART goal in a smart way – you will find that you will achieve meaningful challenges and continue to contribute to your students’ ongoing advancement!

What tips do you have for teachers who are setting professional development goals? Share your advice with us in a comment below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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