The Power of a Fastened Target

I work with two distinct groups of people on a daily basis: teachers and parents. Very few if any of them have the formal training from their own education that we are providing to our current students, and it is apparent daily how important what we teach to students in the way communication skills is for all of life. Teachers are constantly trying to interpret through their interaction with students and less frequently their parents what they need to know to nurture their student’s souls in Christ. And parents are at the dinner table each evening with their students trying to figure out how to nurture, encourage, and guide their child in the culture and expectations of the classroom. One of the most powerful things a teacher can do, given this situation, is provide what I am calling a fastened or fixed target.

So what is the target(s) to which I am referring? A target in the classroom is any goal, objective, hope, or expectation that a teacher establishes for the student. These would include specific assignment criteria, curricular goals, behavior expectations, rules of order, etc. Another way to define it would be ask the question, “What are the things a student must do to succeed in my classroom.” Whatever a teacher would answer that question with is the targets he has for his students. And it is my contention that there is incredible power in knowing those targets so clearly and explicitly that they are always in the same place, rather than moving about, appearing at times, disappearing or changing at other times. The character trait in a teacher that leads to such targets would probably best be stated in the word, “consistency” or faithfulness. Perhaps there is an element of diligence as well.

And teaching is not a way of life that promotes the notion of fastened targets. Many teachers have new and great ideas assail their souls every day and most weekends. They then want to immediately grow their teaching into this new or better idea. So often this results in new targets for the classroom, or at least a change in how the class is getting to the targets. And because the parents only see the targets move without usually seeing the cause of the changes, they all too often assume the worst: “this teacher does not know what they are doing.” This erodes the relationship of trust that must be present in the school relationship for progress to be made.

So teachers must fasten their targets in place and then account for growth, new ideas, and change in such a manner that everyone aiming at the targets know when the changes occur. What has amazed me more and more as I have worked with teachers for a number of years now has been how many of them don’t want anyone else to see their targets. At least that seems to be the case when you discuss with them how to fasten targets to the wall. At this point, let me use Dr. Adler’s three great columns for educational outcomes and discuss each in turn.

Teaching habits to students demands clear targets. Let us say, for instance, that we want students to be able to respond to a thoughtful question in a clear, concise, well-written essay. We must first state that these three criteria are goals we have for essay questions on our test, or however else we are going to pose the questions to them. Terms such as “clear,” “concise,” and “well-written” imply that we have more specific ideas in mind when we say them. If a student writes a clear essay, I will know it when I read it. So the key is to fasten that target in place for the student so that he can hit the target we are asking him to shoot toward.

But I might be ahead of myself, because the teacher might not know what a clear essay would look like. The best way for both the teacher and student to know they are shooting at the same target is to consider in class together several examples of what it means to be clear, concise, and well-written. The teacher should either write several examples or find them and bring them into the classroom, but she and the student should look at them together, and the she should carefully point out exactly what makes the samples fit the targets being fastened to the wall. Most of good habit forming is done in the mode of a coach.

Then there are the ideas (2nd column) that we want our students aiming at in class. These can be wonderfully slippery. Let us suppose for a minute that we have been studying Hamlet and I wish to establish some thought in class around the idea of Love. Simply mentioning the idea gives us a very big target. “What do we learn about love in Hamlet?” Perhaps I am fixed on Hamlet’s own loves: for his murdered father, or for Ophelia, or his mother. What if a student goes off on Horatio’s love for Hamlet? Is he outside my target? No. Is he thinking differently than me? Yes. Is this a problem? Probably not, but if it is, it is my fault for how I framed the contemplation of the idea.

If I have more specific or shall we say smaller targets for the student, then it is up to me to establish that. I do so by introducing and discussing an idea with enough specifics to limit the topic to what I wish the class to consider. The bottom line is that I have to be contemplative and thoughtful before class in order for class to arrive at the targets I had in mind. Frankly, of the three columns, this is the one with the most lee way. I love it when students find new targets, new ideas, to shoot at.

Lastly, and somewhat most basically, there is the third column of content. There are certain facts or base knowledge that a student must learn in class. This can be a real challenge for teacher and student when it comes to fastening targets. Every study has its vocabulary and labels. The more experienced “shooter,” the teacher, should clearly state for the younger bowman what targets are to be shot at. In most cases, every science has way more content than a young student needs to master. So the master teacher must be careful and thoughtful to establish up front what is necessary and relieve the student of the extraneous. Otherwise he will swim in confusion and overload.

The best means I know of for students to gain this content quickly and confidently would be the faithful “study sheet.” Why so many teachers feel this is tantamount to cheating or poor teaching, I have no idea. The best teachers I work with give their sheet to the students at the front end (in essence telling them what they will learn), then work through it and use the sheet constantly during the lesson (telling it to them), then review it again with them before asking them to give it back to them in some form of an assessment. The quickest way to find a moving target, at least at the content level, is to see if there are differences between the study sheet and the test. Why would you not put everything that is on the test on the study sheet? Why would you seek to surprise the student?

So to wrap up my ranting, how does a teacher identify unfastened targets? The hardest and yet most trusted thing I know to tell teachers is “do your own assignments.” I have seen the best growth in teachers when they take the time to try their own lessons. Let’s go back to the essay example up in the discussion of habits. If you want to check how clear your expectations for your students are, take whatever written assignment you have given to the student and write your own response. Then grade it as if you were grading a student essay. If you assign a paper, write one yourself following your own criteria. The bottom line is that to be a great teacher, you have to fasten your targets not only in your own mind, but in the mind of your student. And if you don’t consider the parent, beware. They will come asking questions, because they want to know their child is hitting the target as well.

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