Goals Make Us Better: Insights from the Teacher of the Year


Cathy Whitehead and her third grade class at West Chester Elementary.

By Cathy Whitehead, 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher of the Year

Goals. We all set them, whether we’re aware of it or not.  Lose a few pounds. Save some money. Get that degree. Make it through rush-hour traffic. Goals are what keep us moving forward. Goals give us something to reach for and work toward; they turn our dreams into reality.

Commissioner McQueen outlined three new goals, along with strategies to get there, that will help make sure every Tennessee student is on the path to lifelong success: Tennessee will rank in the top half of states on NAEP by 2019, have an average ACT composite score of 21 by 2020, and a majority of high school graduates in the class of 2020 will earn postsecondary degrees or certificates.

These are absolutely ambitious.

But let me tell you about ambitious goals in my classroom. A few years ago, a New York student by the name of Kwasi Enin made the news by being accepted to all eight Ivy League schools. I was sharing the story with my kids, and questions percolated around the room: What’s an Ivy League school? Why is that such a big deal? Who’s Kwasi Enin?  Where’s New York? (Forehead slap.  Yes, we needed to beef up our geography.)


Students researching for their projects on the computer.

So, as informal as it was, a project was born: Students worked in pairs to research Kwasi and then one of the eight Ivy League schools, with their finished product being a letter written to Kwasi persuading him to go to the school they thought was the best fit for him. A lot of what I expected to happen did: They thought critically, they argued (productively) about where he should go, they struggled with outlining the reasons in their letters.

Then something unexpected happened. I began to overhear snippets of conversations like, “I’d like to go to Harvard. Mrs. W says I’d make a good lawyer [this student excelled at argument], and they have a good law school.” Or, “I think Columbia’s a good school for me. I want to be a reporter, and they have a good journalism department.”

I stopped in my tracks and had a bit of a panic attack. Was what I was doing in my classroom helping these students get where they wanted to go? Graduate from high school? Likely. Get entrance into some of the most demanding universities in the world? Doubtfully.  But right then, my kids taught me one of the most important lessons in my teaching career:  We rarely achieve what we don’t reach for.  I needed to adjust my goals, so that they could achieve theirs.

9-2-15 Cathy Whitehead West Chester Elementary School

Cathy working one-on-one with a student to encourage literacy in her class.

I realized that I needed to change. I needed to set high goals for myself before I could expect them of my students. And I decided that my goal was to be sure that every student in my classroom was appropriately challenged. I talked with a lot of phenomenal teachers, I read everything I could get my hands on, and I restructured much of how we worked together in our classroom. From brain research to the growth mindset, from “Visible Thinking” to computer coding, we worked hard to creatively stretch our learning. Was everything I tried effective in my classroom? Of course not, I am still continuing to learn and collaborate and grow. But what I saw was growth, and their growth was proof positive that when I set high goals, when I work to create the type of classroom that supports and stretches their thinking, they rise to the challenge.

It’s the same with Tennessee Succeeds. These are ambitious goals, but they are what our students need and deserve. It’s what we need to do to move Tennessee forward.  We have achieved great things in Tennessee, but it’s time to adjust our goals, so that our students can achieve theirs.


Read Cathy’s insights on the way Tennessee Succeeds will help our students in her previous blog post.

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