Building a Mission and a Vision That Matters

Sure, your school probably has a mission statement. But what does it really mean? Does it really describe the school? Can those who work at and attend your school articulate the schools’ missions? EML co-founder Will Richardson looks at several different schools’ statements to explore the meaning of “mission” and “vision.”

Almost every school has a mission and/or a vision statement, and most can be found without too much digging online. Some of those statements are traditional, others more creative and modern. Some have no doubt been revised over time, others have remained in place for decades. Some inspire, some…most…don’t.

Do your mission/vision statements really have any bearing on what happens in your school?

But whatever they might say, do your mission/vision statements really have any bearing on what happens in your school? As a school leader, do the words actually represent the intention of your work, or do they represent boxes to be checked in the five-year plan?

Here’s an easy way to find out. Right now, round up 25 random staff members and ask them to articulate the mission and vision of your school or district.

If you’re like most schools I visit, few will be able to. In fact, you yourself may not be able to. Earlier this year in a session with 55 building principals from one of the largest districts in the US, initially not one person spoke up when I offered up that challenge. Finally, after a bit of prodding, an elementary school principal in the corner said “I know it has something to do with direct instruction…”

This is a problem on many layers, not the least of which it’s a missed opportunity to get everyone in a school or district pulling in the same direction around purpose and practice that matters in the lives of students. It’s also a problem because in most cases, the mission and vision do not capture the opportunities and challenges of the technology-filled, networked world of learning that we now find ourselves in.

Compare these two actual mission statements, for example:

“[ABC] ISD is dedicated to be the best district in the State of Texas.”

And:

“We are a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact. Grounded in Christian values, we prepare all students to be college-ready, globally competitive, and engaged citizen leaders.”

Assuming those missions are being carried out, which school would you rather send your kids to?

Nothing against the State of Texas, but there’s no question in my mind I’d rather my kids were at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta. Especially if everyone in that school understands and works toward that mission. Dr. Bret Jacobsen, the head at Mount Vernon, says that “We are habitually paying attention to our intention (mission).” And what that means is that the entire school community is focused on moving students to those outcomes.

Mission is intention: what you hope for the students in your care.

By contrast, what does “the best district” even mean? Who defines “best?” What defines it? What’s the “intention” for students in aspiring to that?

Mission is intention: what you hope for the students in your care. Princes Hill Primary School Principal Esme Capp, who we profiled in our most recent masterclass, writes that “The school’s intent is to foster the desire to continue to learn throughout life and the capacity to exercise judgement and responsibility in matters of morality, ethics and social justice by all members of the school community.” A mission is focused on students, not on the school. And a mission is created by the community, not a committee.

While many see mission and vision as pretty much the same thing, I would argue that the vision is different. The vision is about how you make the mission happen, the beliefs, practices and pedagogies that get you to the outcomes that the mission articulates.

Take the “Mission and Vision” statement of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia:

“SLA provides a vigorous, college-preparatory curriculum with a focus on science, technology, mathematics and entrepreneurship. Students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where the core values of inquiry, research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.”

First part mission, second part vision…what the learning process looks like.

When I ask teachers “What is the vision for teaching and learning in this district?” too few offer answers that speak to a coherent, clearly articulated sense of what it looks like and the beliefs around learning that those practices are based on. In most cases, the vision is inconsistent from teacher to teacher, and is not based on any collectively understood language around how kids and adults learn. In the case of Princes Hill Primary School, a first order of business for Esme Capp was to develop an “ever-evolving shared vision for the school.” The current vision states:

  • Children are active, important members of a variety of communities eg: family, school, ethnic cultures, multimedia and friendship groups – their understanding of the world develops through these social and cultural interactions

  • We learn through active participation, using the many forms of expression

  • We learn through critical engagement in complex, purposeful contexts where relevant connections are made to our world

  • We learn through consciousness of thought where we re-configure pre-existing understandings and concepts

  • We develop motives to learn through positioning ourselves within social situations

  • We learn through the unity of emotions and intellect

Note that the vision focuses on how people learn. These principles are kept in the forefront when making decisions about practice and pedagogy, and they are consistent across the school. It should beg the question, to what extent does your staff have a common understanding or belief of how learning happens? To what degree have you “normed” the language around that understanding? I love the “norms” that Mt. Vernon Presbyterian subscribes to:

  • Start with questions

  • Fail up

  • Share the well

  • Assume the best

  • Have fun

What are yours?

Missions and visions can play a hugely important role when it comes to adapting to the modern realities of learning, especially with respect to the vision. The mission may not change, but how you get there arguably has to change given the affordances for learning that new technologies are constantly creating.

What thoughts about mission and vision do you have? What are some examples of great ones you’ve created or seen? Would love to hear your feedback.

Image credits: Jason Scragz

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