How to Help Teachers Find an Area of Focus

on Apr 30, 2015
Boy in classroom

Teachers have always set goals for their students and for their teaching. But what used to be a fairly open-ended conversation in the principal’s office or staff room has now become a critical component of a teacher’s professional development. Driven by student and teacher growth-oriented evaluation systems, many districts have formalized the process and now require goal setting at least once a year.

But how can teachers authentically set these goals and find the right area of focus for the goals? And how can school and district leaders support teachers in creating goals that positively influence student learning and their own practices?

Before outlining a process that helps identify an area of focus aligned to student and teacher growth and promotes meaningful goal setting, let’s first understand what “area of focus” means. An area of focus is what teachers choose to work on in their instructional practice based on the learning strengths and challenges of students in relationship to their teaching.

So for example, a teacher might set this area of focus:

Students in my class who are below proficient with structuring their explanatory text writing will become proficient by the beginning of January. I will help them reach this goal by:

      • improving my ability to model my own thinking about structure as a writer during whole class mini-lessons
      • conducting weekly small group lessons with the students who are farthest from proficient in structure
      • providing all students with published examples of the many ways that writers may structure informational texts and help them analyze these samples

In practice, principals and teachers may struggle with setting goals like these for several reasons. For one, sometimes teachers set goals before they have gotten to know their current year’s students. They may be using their previous years’ test scores or setting goals without considering the student needs at all.

Furthermore, sometimes teachers will set powerful goals for students and powerful goals for their own practices, but without articulating a connection between their teaching and student learning. For instance, teachers may say they want students to improve in their work with “place value” in math, and then set a goal for their own teaching that has to do with differentiation for English language learners without articulating how the two are connected.

Based on our experience working with educators around the country, we have developed a process that supports teachers in setting professional goals and determining a strategic area of focus. If you would like to build a process for your own district, think about attending one of our Creating Focused Goals Institutes where we will lead you through a process from start to finish.

In general, we recommend that to avoid common pitfalls and find an area of focus, a teacher and principal work together to do the following:

    • Formatively assess the students in this year’s classes to identify the learning strengths and challenges of the students.
    • Articulate the district and building goals for the year.
    • Assess instructional practice using your rubric or framework.
    • Articulate the goals for student learning and instructional practice.

This is a fairly general description of the steps needed to define an area of focus. So let’s break down this process to a typical problem of practice that districts encounter: how to help teachers connect their instructional practice goals with student learning goals. Following an example from a district we worked with, we’ll walk through each step of the process in more detail and show what a reasonable and effective area of focus might look like. The entire process calls for teachers to consider school goals as well as their own students’ learning strengths and needs.

Formatively assess the students in this year’s classes.

Teachers and principals often get together early in the year in grade level teams or content area departments to review district unit or benchmark assessments, Common Core State Standards, and other important year-long goals for student learning. From these conversations, teachers may work together to devise formative assessments for their students so they can get a baseline of their students’ skills. We emphasize that there are many ways to formatively assess students to ground teachers’ individual goals. What follows is just one strategy.

The district we supported gathered the state writing rubrics and the rubrics associated with state testing and developed a “cold writing task” (a task for students that mirrored the test and to be administered without any instruction) for fifth graders. The task was designed to assess how well students could read three texts on a single topic, discuss those texts with a partner, and write an explanatory essay based on a prompt and the three texts. All teachers administered the “cold writing task” and then met again to analyze student results.

Describe the learning strengths and challenges of the students.

Analyzing the results of the writing task, the team identified several strengths and challenges in the student work across classrooms. Teachers also shared reflections on their own classrooms. The group spotted the following trends:


As a whole, students:

      • were willing to try to talk with each other about what they read.
      • knew how to pace themselves as readers and read three short texts in one sitting.
      • knew how to take notes on multiple texts.
      • could include evidence from multiple texts in their writing.


As a whole, students:

      • struggled to structure their writing so that it had some cohesion.
      • struggled to integrate quotations smoothly into their writing.
      • struggled to sustain a conversation about what they had read.

Articulate the district and building goals for the year.

During an opening staff meeting, the principal outlined the district’s and school’s priorities for the year and also explained what kind of professional development teachers would be experiencing. The priorities were supporting student growth in writing about what they read and supporting student ability to talk about what they read and to justify their thinking in all content areas. Teachers would receive monthly professional development in literacy focused on designing mini-lessons for writing instruction and small group instruction.

Assess instructional practice using your rubric.

Teachers then used the district’s instructional framework and rubric to identify strengths and weaknesses in their own teaching practice while thinking about their students’ needs and the school and district goals. Teachers invited the principal and school’s instructional coach into their classrooms to create “scripts” of their teaching so they had an informal record to use for their self-assessment process. The principal simply came to the classrooms and took objective, non- evaluative notes (or “scripts) documenting the teaching and learning that was taking place.

Jenny, a fifth grade teacher, asked her principal to observe and script her teaching a writing-focused mini-lesson. She examined the script after the lesson, paying special attention to places where she engaged the students and modeled her own thinking. She then completed the self-assessment using the district’s instructional rubric and found that during her mini-lesson, she was not providing enough scaffolding through her own thinking. She also realized that she was not differentiating her teaching for the range of learners she had in her classroom.

Articulate the goals for student learning and instructional practice.

In this last step, teachers and principals summarize the goals in a final area of focus statement. In this case, Jenny decided – based on the work with her team, the school goals and professional learning, and her own self-assessment – that two thirds of her fifth graders were struggling with structuring their writing. She thought tackling this challenge would be a good goal for her students in the first five months of school. She realized that she could address this particular need in her students by working on these three areas in her teaching:

      • improving her ability to model her own thinking about structure as a writer during whole class minilessons. Jenny believed that if she could show her students her own thinking about how to structure her writing, they would be better prepared to make decisions about structure as writers. She also knew that her school’s professional development would support her in this area.
      • conducting weekly small group lessons with the students who are farthest from proficient in structure. Jenny saw that she could not address all the needs in the class through whole group instruction alone. She decided to target a small group of students who were struggling with structure and meet with them each week to work on that skill. In order to get better at conducting small group instruction, Jenny decided she would visit her fifth grade colleagues’ classrooms and observe them conducting lessons like these.
      • providing all students with published examples of the many ways that writers may structure informational texts and help them analyze these samples. Jenny decided that her students all needed to see examples of well-structured published writing. She knew she could rely on her fifth grade colleagues to work together to find these examples.


Getting this process up and running is not easy at first. However, we find that teachers really want to set and measure meaningful goals that connect their instruction with student learning outcomes. We have found that through the support of PLCs, carefully constructed staff convenings, and one-on-one conversations with teachers, instructional leaders can support teachers in reflecting on formative student data and crafting goals for their teaching and student learning. Building a strong connection between instruction and student learning can help an entire staff develop a habit of approaching problems of student learning collectively.

About the author

Dr. Joanna Michelson is the director of teacher leadership and learning at the Center for Educational Leadership. She leads CEL's teacher professional learning line of services. She also provides direct support to lead teachers, coaches and school and district leaders in designing and setting conditions for teacher learning that lead to enriched learning experiences for all students. Prior to work at CEL, Dr. Michelson worked as a middle school language arts teacher, secondary literacy coach and as a consultant for CEL. She holds a doctoral degree from the College of Education at the University of Washington with a focus on coach learning from practice. Dr. Michelson is the co-author of "Leading for Professional Learning: What Successful Principals Do To Support Teaching Practice."
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