It Is Better to Aim High and Fail

This is part of a series of posts from nominees for our LifeChanger of the Year educator recognition program. We meet scores of fascinating LifeChangers every year who have interesting perspectives to share about children, education and life.

It was a beautiful fall afternoon when a colleague approached me after a busy day of teaching. This was our conversation:

Colleague: “Can I ask you about your SMART Goal for this year?”

Me: “Sure”

Colleague: “I see your SMART Goal has something to do with increasing empathy with your 7th grade band students?”

Me: “Yes, that is correct.”

Colleague: “Why are you doing that as your SMART Goal?”

Me: “Have you seen the hallways lately?”

Colleague: “How will you teach empathy?”

Me: “Using Salvation is Created by Russian composer Pavel Chesnokov.”

Colleague: “I don’t understand.”

Me: “Chesnokov wrote Salvation is Created. He was told by the Russian government that he could no longer write sacred music and must write for his country. Salvation is Created is one of the most beautiful pieces you will ever hear. It was one of the last sacred works he ever wrote. The tragedy is that Pavel Chesnokov never heard it performed. Can you imagine writing something this beautiful and never hearing it performed? That is my entry point to empathy.”

Colleague: “How will you measure it?”

Me: “We will do reflections and look for signs of growth, vulnerability, and change.”

Colleague: “What if you don’t meet your goals?”

Me: “I would rather aim for empathy and fail than aim for a lower goal and achieve it.”

A “SMART” goal is one that has the following criteria: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. At first glance, these criteria seem to make perfect sense. Who would argue that goals should be random, undeterminable, impossible, inapplicable, and never ending?

However, we must consider the implication of producing a measurable outcome. No measurement system in the world can assess what most matters in life: Integrity. Determination. Empathy. Resourcefulness. Connectedness. A thirst for knowledge. Passion. Creativity. Adaptability. Confidence and kindness. Respect. These are the qualities that adults who are truly prepared and engaged possess. They are beyond measurement and they are what we must actively cultivate in our students.

Admittedly, I have impressed administrators with color coded Excel spreadsheets brimming with numbers and graphs in the past. Yet, I would argue that some of my worst teaching created some of my most impressive “data.” I believe that numbers and letters cannot summarize the complexities of our classrooms. I also believe that when our focus is on producing measurable data and not on our students three things happen:

  1. We take less interest in what we are doing.
  2. We take the easiest possible task to get it done. In other words, we aim low and avoid risks.
  3. We get less creative and the quality of our thinking is reduced.

As Albert Einstein once said, “Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.” Carrots and sticks play too big a role in our schools. We tend to create safe goals focusing on standardized test scores. Surely, academic progress is important but it is not sufficient.

I believe that schools must consider the growth and well being of the whole child. Districts need to cultivate safe spaces for teachers to take risks, think critically, and explore new ideas. As teachers, we must be courageous, advocate for the learning not easily represented in a number and avoid setting goals that just “check the box.” In other words, it is better to aim high and fail.