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Setting Goals and Boundaries: 5 Steps for Teachers in the New Year

Every good plan starts with a strategy. In a previous post, I discussed the importance of strategizing to survive the disillusionment stage of teaching. But how exactly do you strategize, going into a new year that has more questions than answers? We’re going to look at how to set goals and boundaries so you can maintain them in the year ahead.

We’ve all made New Year’s Resolutions to start out the year - and ended up not seeing them through. This is more than making resolutions though. It’s a way to think about how things are going - with teaching and life - and taking action to make improvements. To help you organize your thoughts, I’ve created a workbook that you can download here. I would recommend using it to help you plan your goals and to refer to it throughout the year.

Let’s get started with the 5 steps of strategizing.

Step 1: break the upcoming year into quarters.

I’m not a fan of equating business practices with education, but there are some things we can use that do make sense. In business, sales and goals periods are often broken into quarters. Quarter 1 is January to the end of March, Quarter 2 is April to the end of June, Quarter 3 is July to the end of September, and Quarter 4 is October to the end of December.

It’s important to think of the upcoming year in quarters - three months at a time - because we have learned how unpredictable things can be with the Covid-19 pandemic, and how long range plans can quickly get altered or go down the drain. We’re still in a state of flux with this crisis, and the winter months are going to have a lot of challenges with illness, school openings or closings, distance learning - basically everything we’ve been dealing with will be continued into the start of the year. Looking just three months ahead gets us through the winter and allows you to set manageable changes that you can see through. Having success with the goals and boundaries you set is important, and a three-month chunk of time as opposed to a 12 month or 6 month will help you see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Step 2: S.E.T. yourself up for success.

S.E.T. is an acronym you can use to test the goals you wish to set and the changes you want to make in the next quarter of the year. It's also a great tool to use when setting boundaries and deciding if you need to say "no." It's also a topic I talk about in my free ebook The Thrive Guide: Beginning a Teaching Career in Uncertain Times, which you can download here. To use S.E.T. when choosing goals, ask yourself these questions:

S - Is the goal or change I want to make sustainable?

Will you be able to continue to do this consistently? Making adjustments and having to start over when creating new habits is expected, but something you won't be able to maintain over time will leave you feeling defeated. You can start small and be flexible with something that you feel will be difficult to sustain at first (like being finished with work by a certain time each day) and work up to in another quarter the ideal.

E - How does this goal or change use my energy?

Ultimately, the changes we make through strategizing should make us feel less depleted. We’re not trying to fill up an already full plate. The goal is to simplify and streamline certain tasks so you have "juice" to pursue things that allow you to be happy and healthy. Some things like exercising and eating better are energy givers! Other energy givers may be spending time with you kids or making time for a hobby. Trying to outdo or overextend yourself even more with school work - that’s an energy drainer.

T - Will this goal or change make good use of my time?

There are two ways to look at this. Will this goal or change give you more time? If not, will it improve your well-being or that of your family? For example, doing yoga 20-30 minutes a day takes time out of my day, but it helps me focus and set intentions, so that is a goal that makes good use of my time!

So that is S.E.T. - sustainable, energy, time.

Step 3: Complete the quadrants for Home/Health/School/Self.

If you have the workbook downloaded, you’ll see this is simply a chart divided into 4 sections, one each for home (which includes family), health, school, and self (which encompasses any personal goals you have). This is a chance to brain dump about the goals, boundaries, and changes you desire for any of those 4 aspects of life. And it’s important that you look at all 4, because all 4 matter and impact each other. You can write as many ideas as you want, but apply S.E.T. to each idea. Is this goal sustainable and does it make good use of your energy and time? If you can write S.E.T. out from it, circle it!

Step 4: Choose your focus.

Choose 1-2 goals from each quadrant (home, health, school, self) to focus on this quarter. Have no more than 5 you plan to focus on (you can always make changes or add goals each quarter). You’re aiming for one goal for each quadrant, with possibly 2 from the same one. Make sure these are goals you can S.E.T. and ones that will give you the most relief.

Now, some of you may be thinking that your school goals are more urgent than anything right now and that is where you are under the most duress, or maybe it’s home, or any of the four seems to outweigh the other. I get it, but all four of these areas bleed into each other. We’ve got to get out of our "teacher tunnel" and view ourselves as complete human beings that need to focus on other areas of life beside school. Also, when you use the sentence stems in the workbook, you will see that by setting a goal in one area of your life, you often indirectly set an invisible goal in another. It’s opportunity cost, to use another business term in this episode - to give up one thing to get something else.

If you don’t have the workbook in front of you, let me explain the sentence stems. This is where you refine your focus and choose your 5 goals by basically plugging them into fill in the blank statements. They read like this:

Here’s an example of how this would sound filled out:

Doing three hours of grading each night makes me feel exhausted and angry. My plan is to make Tuesday and Thursday my grading days so I am able to have the rest of my evenings to eat dinner with my family and workout. I may have to stop expecting all of my assignments to be graded for the next day. It will be worth it, because if nothing changes, my family life and health will continue to suffer.

These statements not only help you define your new goals and boundaries, but let you see the benefits of working toward them and what will happen if you continue to let things spiral downward.

Step 5: Review, Remind, Reflect.

Carrying through our plans and goals is the hardest part. It's easy to plan things during a break, only to have our good intentions swept away when school resumes. You can use Review, Remind, Reflect throughout each quarter to keep you on track. It doesn’t involve any journaling, because that would adding one more thing to your plate. This is a way of thinking about your progress.


Keep the completed sentence stems from Step 4 with your goals where you can see them each morning. You may choose to rewrite them in a planner or on a notecard where you can view them during the day.


Everyone messes up when making or breaking habits. It isn't always comfortable making changes, especially when you’re making changes other people may not like because they expect you to keep doing what you’ve always done. Remind yourself why you made this goal and how it adds value to your life.


Throughout each quarter, reflect on your progress. It can be each morning, week, or whenever you have a moment to yourself. Make adjustments using S.E.T. if needed. If you are maintaining your goals, reflect on how your home, health, school, and self is improving. Be proud for choosing to take action and control over your life. It’s better than the alternative of feeling stressed and hopeless.

Whatever you do, don’t give up. You’re not just strategizing how you’ll get through this year; you’re developing a new way of thinking about dealing with life’s challenges. To recap how to strategize:

Whatever this new year and next semester of school brings, you deserve a life that brings you peace and purpose. Now you have the tools to create it.

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