In our last article, we shared some of the mission statements, vision statements, and value lists for some of the top schools in the world. As we looked through these statements, we were really inspired to work on our own statements.
Many, if not all, schools and districts have these sorts of purpose statements, but often they are created and talked about only to check off a box on a list of to-do’s.
The challenge we place before our colleagues, school administrators, and districts throughout the United States is to take a look at what exists. Is it living and breathing, meaning is it useful?
A statement of purpose, whether of mission, vision, or values, can be a very powerful tool when used correctly. It can clarify your group’s direction, give everyone involved with your school a common focus, and help you make great strides toward fulfilling something greater than yourselves.
Here are some suggestions we’ve found useful for making purpose statements that drive success.
When we talk about a Vision Statement, we mean defining what you hope to see students and educators doing in the future in a relatively short, concise statement.
When talking about a Mission Statement, we mean creating an explanation of the “how”, giving the school community some overarching, meaningful steps to fulfill that will result in achieving the vision.
Graduation or students obtaining jobs is the least students should be achieving, and it’s not an acceptable vision or mission. Both your vision and mission statements should be about loftier goals while also achieving articulation and the ability to prove progress.
When talking about a school’s philosophy, we mean a lengthier, meatier version of the Vision Statement.
Finally, some organizations take things a step further and define a set of founding values or goals. These flesh out how the vision and mission statements are accomplished in small, individual, actionable steps or further articulate what it looks like to succeed in those areas.
Evaluate What You Have Already
Does your school or district already have a mission statement? It may be a great one, just unused.
As you look through what already exists, ask yourself the questions you would if you were creating a new purpose statement from scratch. Talk to teachers around you, board members, administrators, and investigate how this purpose is being fulfilled, if it is.
If it isn’t being fulfilled, is the statement inaccurate? Does it need to be redefined? Is the statement outdated? Has your district seen a lot of change since it was written?
Finally, as you move through the purpose statements of your organization, define or redefine your own purpose statements. If the organization you are with does not adhere to its own statements, or its purposes clash with your own personal statements, it may be time to find a place in which you are a better fit.
If you, as an individual educator, see that the organization’s purpose statements need revision, remember that big changes in a district always have to follow the chain of command. If you’re hoping to stay where you are and change the environment around you, define your own purpose first, then as you find success, share your thoughts on your organization’s purpose with those immediately above you in the chain.
For big changes school or district-wide, the change really needs to happen from the top down or you’ll be spinning your wheels. It’s definitely possible for anyone to affect change in a school district, but your leadership needs to have some ownership in the process or it will just remain.
Likewise, without everyone’s involvement (all members of the faculty should be included, and even students and families can be invited to join in), a purpose statement will not go far.
Define Your Participants
Who is on this journey with you? What strengths and weaknesses do they have? What obstacles will you have to overcome to even “get in the boat” and sail toward a destination - ANY destination?
It’s important to know who you’re sailing with, and what their opinions are. We all have goals. You have to talk about them with your colleagues and decide what your core values are as a group.
What is important to your students? What matters most to their families? This is why all stakeholders must participate in the process. You have to know these people well if you’re going to go on a journey with them.
Have some conversations. Make collective lists. Talk about what is most meaningful to all of you - not just graduation, remember? But what can you gain along the way? What matters? And differentiate - what matters MOST?
That will help you define your vision, which will in turn define your mission.
You need to know who they are currently and who you all agree they will be in the future.
Don’t set tiny goals, either. Shoot for the moon, and, as the saying goes, you’ll at least land among the stars.
Be Realistic About Where You Are Currently
If you’ve ever had a child lie to you about a situation they are in, you know how frustrating it is. Often, we tell students that they won’t be in trouble if they just come clean and tell us what they are really dealing with.
The same is true for looking at your situation as an organization.
Don’t pretend that those low scores, or that high absentee rate, or that low report on teacher morale is an exception. Don’t offer yourselves excuses. Look the ugly truth right in the eye and accept it.
That is the only way you’ll ever improve.
Tell the truth, no matter how bad it may seem, how dark it may appear, or how deep the abyss may feel. At least you’ll know where you’re starting and how far you will have to go.
Because there is nothing more discouraging than travelling for days and weeks and months and realizing you have twice as far left to go because you thought you started a lot closer to your goal than you really did. To find the truth mid-journey will kill your spirit and your desire for improvement faster than anything else.
Agree Upon Your Desired Destination
Clearly, if you’re determining who you all plan to be at the end of the line, you’ll also determine where you’ll be. And this, like every other detail, must be a consensus. Clearly define your end goals - what will it look like when you arrive at success?
Set Your Course
Once you know where you are going and who you hope to be at the end of the journey, it’s time to establish the exact route you’ll take to get there.
Go through the same process, and set smaller, data-measured, attainable goals.
This is the real “meat” of the journey. Many people look at where they are today, where they want to be in the future, and just stop. Without this crucial step, your organization will go absolutely nowhere. You have got to create some “baby-steps”, milestones, or “pit stops”.
Create places to stop and look back and say, “We’ve done it! We’ve made it this far!”
Make celebration a priority.
And then, you’ll turn and look to the next point.
At each place along your course or journey, you’ll stop and reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going.
Otherwise, you’ll feel like you’re in a Lord of the Rings movie - traveling forever with no end destination in sight.
Remember Your Journey, and Focus on the Horizon
Without those checkpoints, it’s very easy to lose sight of your vision and mission. It’s incredibly easy to get side-tracked by obstacles and quests that have nothing to do with where you should be heading.
Obstacles will come your way - pandemics, deaths, financial woes, families in crisis, a natural disaster - but when you are focused on the horizon, you take those setbacks and reconfigure your route, like a GPS app. You don’t stop and stay there.
You reroute and keep heading for the horizon.
There will be times in which your vision or mission will necessarily change, and we’re not saying to be so resolute that you miss the point of having a vision and mission in the first place.
Remember, though, flexibility is a gift. It keeps you from breaking. You may have to adjust your course, your destination, and your vision of who you will be as you get closer to your goals, and the people on the boat change places. Sometimes, you will get a whole new crew which will change your vision and mission - and that’s okay.
You’ll know the difference between a change as the result of flexibility or a change because of distraction when you get to it. Changing because you are being flexible and responding to what your group needs is what being a good leader is all about.
Just as you did in the beginning, take a collective look at your vision and mission statements, adjust as necessary, and keep moving forward.
Vision and mission should be living, breathing, ever-evolving things.