4 Focal Points to Guide Your Students

The days and weeks of the school year are driven, sometimes relentlessly, by a set of standards. Day after day we push our students to get through the required curriculum, lest we fall behind and have to push them harder through the next unit of study. It’s easy, in this daily grind, to lose sight of the bigger picture. What is all this for?

So while you motivate your students to learn where all the European countries are, or memorize their multiplication tables, or explore the interior of a cell, remember to zoom out for a moment and look at that larger goal.

If you aren’t sure what that guiding goal is, there are several different ways to think about it depending on what suits you and your students best.


Perhaps you and your students are most motivated by a learning outcome goal. If that sounds like you, work with students to pick a big exciting goal for the year. Try to make it more specific than “we will learn 3rd grade English by the end of the year.” Like:

  • We are going to read and discuss 10 books this year
  • We will virtually visit 80 countries this year
  • We will learn to use 200 new Spanish words in a sentence this year

That way, when students are feeling weary, you can help them see the progress toward this big goal and show them how much they’ve learned.

Big Question

When I taught World History, I found it particularly helpful to guide my class with a big question that we touched on in every lesson. Our big question was “Well, How Did we Get Here?” When students were bored by the birth of agriculture or wondered why we were learning about the Renaissance, we would come back to that question and map it out. “Why is this particular era important to who we are today? How did it contribute?” It was a great way to help students see the larger picture and tap into their curiosity.

If this sounds like you, take some time to think about what the big, exciting question is. What can bring you and your class back when they are lost in facts and have forgotten what it’s all for?

Subject-Matter Passion

Some teachers feel such a deep, abiding passion for their subject matter that that alone can serve as a guide when lost in the details of a particular day. If that sounds like you, then here are some ideas for how to bring you and your students back to it:

  • Make some kind of poster or touchpoint in your room that will instantly remind you of what’s incredible about the subject. It can be as simple as phrase on a piece of paper taped to your desk.
  • Take a moment of peace before class to reflect on what you love about this subject. Tap into that passion so you can be ready to connect the dots for students when they don’t understand the point of an activity.
  • When students feel particularly lost or unmotivated, zoom them back out with you. Give ‘em an impassioned speech about why this matters.


If you stripped away all the details of your particular course matter, what would you have? Why do you think students should be in school and in your classroom? What is the point? Is it to learn, to learn how to learn? But why? Why is it so important that they learn? It is to be a good worker? Is it to be a good citizen? To be a good person? What is this all for?

Sometimes what guides us is not something particular to our subject matter but is about what is essential to being a person. Maybe you value kindness to all humans, or value being a deeply informed person. If this sounds like you, take some time to answer the above questions for yourself. Be explicit about that value with your students and help them come back to it.

When the school day gets too deep in details for days on end, we begin to lose our students and we too begin to lose sight of what we’re doing and why. Find out what (or where, or when) your North Star is and use it to help you and your students look up from the ground occasionally.