How Do I Set Goals When I Am In Survival Mode?

You are more than what you accomplish.

This is an image of goals for teachers in 2021. These goals focus on health and well-being and are goals for teachers who are in survival mode in 2020.

Setting goals for our professional growth is part of the job (yes, teacher evaluations are still happening in many states, even this year), but how do we set goals when we are teaching during a pandemic and in full-on survival mode? Will our admin be disappointed when they read, “make it through the year without quitting?” Because if we are honest, the idea of getting better at teaching (or anything) feels impossible. So instead of setting goals the way we have always have, let’s try a different approach. Here’s how to set goals when you are in survival mode.

Instead of “I will improve,” try “I will feel”

I know. What?!? For so many of us, our achievements define our success. Our productivity defines our worth. When we think about our teaching, we look out instead of in. Here’s the thing about this profession: there is so much to learn, and be, and figure out, and do that you could spend your entire lifetime “improving” your teaching and still feel like you have more to improve on. So let’s flip the switch. Let’s set goals for how we want to be as teachers instead of what we want to achieve.

Your goal might look like:

I will feel confident that no matter how uncertain this year is that I am making time to rest and care for myself so I can show up fully for my students (whether in person or online or both).

Instead of writing SMART goals, try making a list of practices and habits

If you swear by the SMART method, I get it. There’s a lot to be said about making your goals specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. But this year, it just doesn’t make sense, especially the time-bound part. There is so much out of our control (many schools are in a cycle of going in person, going remote, and back again). We cannot control our circumstances, but we can control how we respond to them. That’s why making a list of practices or habits feels better this year.

Your goal might look like

Sleep 7-8 hours a night, drink water throughout the day, avoid people who drain my energy, call a friend when I feel stressed, ask colleagues for help, relationships over rigor, treat myself to chocolate on the regular, speak up on behalf of my students and the profession

Instead of “this is what my admin wants my goal to be,” try “this is the goal that I care about”

Confession: there were years where I was up against the professional goals’ deadline at my school, and I wrote down something that I knew my admin would like to see and didn’t really put much thought into what I cared about. Big mistake. I ended up spending a lot of time and energy learning about new technology when I really wanted to create a new reading list for my seventh graders. So anytime I worked on my “professional growth” all I was doing was building resentment. This year we are tired and scared, and it feels like all of our nerves are on the outside of our bodies. Don’t set a goal for anything unless you truly believe that it matters to you and your students. Goals still matter even if they have nothing to do with standards or instructional models. 

Your goal might look like:

I care about helping my students discover books that they love to read, so I am going to expand my virtual classroom library and introduce my students to a variety of genres.

Instead of, “This year I will,” try, “As years progress, I hope”

This one came from Tanya, a first-year teacher who shared in our WeAreTeachers First Years! Group on Facebook . I wish someone suggested this to me when I was teaching! If there is anything that we need to be reminded of this year, in particular, it’s that we have many years of teaching ahead of us. Because there’s so much uncertainty this year, it feels right to set a goal that we care about and want to work on, while also making it clear that we are going to keep working on it throughout our teaching career. And yes, I know: how will we show we met our goal? The answer is we won’t. Process over product, teacher friends.

Your goal might look like:


As years progress, I hope to keep working on best practices for teaching close reading. I have a few strategies that I always use and my kids like them, but I want to dig deeper and see what else I can try.

Instead of, “I am not good at X, so I better set a goal for X,” try “I am good at Y, and I want to keep working at Y.”

I promise this one doesn’t involve doing any math (you’re welcome, English teachers!). We are really hard on ourselves. Too often, we focus on what we don’t know or aren’t good at rather than what we love and are great at. I coach a first-year teacher who told me, “ I’m bad at classroom management, so I guess we need to work on that,” and my response was, “Do you want to work on that? Because, if you don’t want to work on something, you aren’t going to.” Motivation and drive are at an all-time low this year. We are so tired we can barely manage to shower, let alone become “good” at classroom management. So this year, let’s set a goal to keep going with something we love or are doing well. No motivation required.

Your goal might look like:

I have built strong relationships with my students by learning more about them and what they like. I want to build on this by learning about what my students care about and the problems they want to solve.

Instead of academic goals, try SEL goals

Nothing made me happier when you started sharing that many of your districts are encouraging you to focus on SEL goals for your students. Maslow before Bloom! I love Kelly, a teacher in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE Facebook group, who shared, “I would recommend setting goals around building relationships and SEL. These are supported by research and more important than ever. This way, you can focus on the whole student and their needs during this time.” I couldn’t agree more. Yes, our students need to learn how to identify the main idea and do long division, but this year, teaching them how to handle stress and manage their fears feels more goal worthy.

Your goal might look like:

We love this goal that Victoria, a teacher in our Facebook group, shared:

I will incorporate student reflections into my weekly lesson plans to promote student ownership and provide a way for students to advocate for their own needs

How are you setting goals this year? Share in the comments below!

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How Do I Set Goals When I Am In Survival Mode?