Thursday, July 11, 2019

Eight Weeks of Summer: Big Hairy Say What Now?

This post is week 5 of 8 in the 8 Weeks of Summer Blog Challenge for educators.

I've been doing the Hot Lunch Tray eight week challenge. Unlike other challenges, it does not require me to eat responsibly or beat myself up with ice water or plastic gerbils. I'm answering the questions as my old pre-retirement self. You can see what other folks are writing by checking out the #8WeeksofSummer hashtag. So here's this week's prompt:

What is your BHAG for next school year?

That's "Big Hairy Audacious Goal" for those of you haven't sat through professional development that pushes this kind of thing.

So I guess I have to address this one with a confession-- in thirty-nine years of teaching, I never set a BHAG. For that matter, I not sure I know anyone who did.

Maybe it's just a matter of phraseology. BHAG strikes me like "wacky" or "wise" or "hilarious" or "weird" or "badass rebel"-- if you have to apply the term to yourself, then you aren't. BHAG is an approach that calls attention to itself, that hollers, "Wow! Look at how bold and outside the box I'm being!" Maybe it's my New England roots or my general attitude, but this kind of thing takes me right back to Rule 10: Shut up and do the work.

I always had goals. Any teacher who's worth their salt (or cod, or whatever you want to trade in)always has goals, because any decent teacher can tell you, right now, the list of things that she knows she needs to get better at. There's never enough time, and while we refine and refine our game, it's never perfected. So teachers have projects, all the time. Get faster at assessing papers. Reconfigure the room. Rebuild the reading list. Incorporate ideas from that book/video/presentation that set my brain on fire. Come up with a better approach for that unit I can never quite sell.

Are any of those goals hairy and audacious? I don't know. I don't know how you would upscale them.  But-- and I guess this is also where BHAG rubs me the wrong way-- what is wrong with setting a goal of substantially improving your classroom practice? It may not be stunningly dramatic, but it will certainly benefit the students, and you'll enjoy feeling like you've gotten a better handle on the job you love.

I mean, yes, do something. There is no surer sign that a teacher has started become a lousy teacher than a declaration, spoken or un-, that they have everything pretty well figured out and there's nothing they really need to work on. Don't do nothing. And if you can't think of anything you need to work on, it may be that you are just done in the classroom. Spend your summer job hunting.

I also worry about the effect of setting a BHAG you don't reach (I once heard a presenter argue that a BHAG should seem unattainable). If you end up wasting energy, paying an opportunity cost, and feeling like you failed, well-- that doesn't seem helpful.

I don't want to be dismissive of those who have BHAGs. Maybe the big jolt or drama and adrenaline is just what you need, or maybe you feel the need to blast yourself out of a rut. That's fine. I may the kind of person who makes you bored, and you may be the kind of person who makes me tired. The world, and the students, needs all kinds.  But BHAGs seem vaguely accusatory, like  those Facebook posts from your friends at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro while all you've got is a picture of the mess you made trying to feed your toddlers avocados. "Audacious" is a word that wants to brag "I just had to take it further than ordinary mortals," and it hard to send that message without also sending the message that ordinary mortals are just not so great.

Maybe my BHAG was to keep improving professionally for 39 years, to better at juggling more balls and doing it more efficiently, to run the race as a really long marathon and not a sprint. Maybe it was  to push my own personal envelope just one more notch each year. But I was never a superhero teacher and nobody ever came back in the fall breathlessly wondering what new mountain i had conquered since last May. And I was-- and am-- always okay with that.

So if you're working on your BHAG, good for you. And if you are just plugging away at the goal of doing your job better than you did before, I'm here to tell you that your goals don't have to be larger than life in order to be worthy of your time and effort. Set goals that help you grow and improve as a teacher and don't worry about whether they have hair on them.


  1. BHAG?

    Coming from the people who think the school year has (6 periods X 40 minutes X 170 days) nearly 41,000 teachable moments. Ha!

    Coming from the people who think The Dead Poet's Society, Stand and Deliver, To Sir With Love, and Freedom Writers are models for BHA teaching.

    Coming from the people who can't even put on a 40 minute audacious PD session, forgetting that teachers have 900 such time slots to fill and in front of adolescents who would find their audaciousness corny at best.

    Coming from people who don't realize that tweaking your bathroom policy so that it works better is a big enough and hairy enough and audacious enough goal for real teachers.

  2. Peter,
    I like this arguing with the prompt. I might have done some of that too, but I didn't think to! When I wrote my post, I shared my many small goals, all related to literacy in my English language learner school. I don't have a BHAG about it all, but I think there is one I just haven't articulated. However, reading your post makes me realize it's OK if I don't articulate it too. The work will get done either way.

    Take care,

  3. Fellow challengee here, from Hot Lunch Tray. I agree with your argument. I've been struggling to come up with a take on the BHAG prompt. I relate more to the idea of small, attainable goals. I'm pretty sure there's plenty of behavioral therapists out there who would back us up.

  4. Peter,
    Yes. I struggled with BHAG, but I chose to play the game since I joined the challenge with friends. I remember thinking, "ew, I don't want to have to come up with and think about that." I didn't think about expressing some of my push back on the prompt as my answer. But I also didn't think of it is something super-hero show-offy thing either. I thought of it as something of an umbrella for how to live, as when you suggest "doing your job better." So I waited all week and let the idea float around in my head until I came up with one I could write about. I'm glad you chose to consider the other side of BHAG and clarify what is truly important. Thank you. ~ Sheri