The Vision-less Learning Community. . .

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to join the faculty of a brand new school that was opening as a professional learning community.  Our administrator was nothing short of remarkable—one of those top ten-percenters who was able to single-handedly inspire passion and develop a shared sense of commitment and purpose.

And our early work was nothing short of amazing!

Perhaps most meaningful were our conversations around our school’s mission statement.  Unlike the overly generic mission statements posted in almost every school that I’d worked in early in my career, our mission statement became a great source of pride for our building because we created it together!

The process was powerful, forcing us to wrestle with core ideas about teaching and learning.  Specifically, we struggled to decide whether or not our school’s mission should be to “strive for high student achievement” or to “ensure high student achievement.”

While this may seem like a small semantic shift, “ensuring high student achievement” seemed pretty intimidating to us.  Like many educators, we immediately began throwing out all kinds of reasons why ensuring student achievement was impossible.  “What about the kids who don’t do their homework?” some argued.  “Surely, we can’t ensure high-student achievement for them!”

“Right!” chimed in others.  “And what about the kids from families who just don’t care?  I’m not about to promise to ensure anything that I can’t control.”

But simply promising to “strive for” high student achievement didn’t sit well with our principal.  He wanted to see something more out of our building, and he said so:  “Guys, I actually believe in you.  If I didn’t think that you could ensure high student achievement, you wouldn’t be sitting in this room right now.

“More importantly, ensuring high student achievement is the right thing to do, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t the parents of our students know that we are going to do more than just give it the good ol’ college try?  The success of their children is too important to just hope that teachers are striving for excellence.”

Because of our commitment to him—and because he had so obviously shown faith in us—the thinking in the room slowly shifted.  Instead of being intimidated by “ensuring high student achievement,” we saw it as a moral obligation.  Our final mission statement reflected that sense of deep purpose, reading:

Our school is a collaborative community that ensures high student achievement and values the unique needs of each learner.

Our principal had appealed to the core of who we were as professionals, inspiring us to take on a challenge that many schools shy away from.  There wasn’t a person in that room who didn’t believe in him because he had made constant efforts to show us that he cared about us as professionals and as people.

This attention to relationships allowed him to move us from what Kenneth Williams calls—in his chapter of The Collaborative Administrator—compliance to commitment:

“Ensuring the learning of every student requires more than compliance,
however.  Learning for all students requires deep levels of commitment
from all stakeholders, and that is nurtured through principals
developing relationships with teachers that foster trust, integrity,
collaboration, and ownership.  The ambitious mission of learning for
all can only be accomplished through the deep commitment of teachers.”
  (page 73)

For the next three years, our mission statement drove every decision in our school.  There wasn’t a moment when “ensuring high student achievement” was far from our mind.  In fact, every time that we ran a new idea by our principal, his first question was always, “Can you show me how this ensures high student achievement or values the unique needs of every learner?”

We got to the point where we’d carefully research everything, making natural connections between best practice, our proposals and our school’s mission statement.  We knew that the more evidence that we could pile behind our plan, the more likely our principal was to support us in our actions.

We also knew that if our decision couldn’t be clearly connected to “ensuring high student achievement” or “valuing the unique needs of every learner,” we’d be answering a collection of difficult questions from the bossman!  He’d either turn us away—or he’d force us to refine and revise until our ideas aligned with our school’s mission.

This all sounds great, doesn’t it?

Isn’t the goal of any professional learning community to establish a powerful, shared mission that is used to drive the actions of stakeholders?  And shouldn’t principals serve as the protectors of the mission, questioning decisions that seems out of alignment with the overall goals of the community?

Absolutely!  In fact, the “principal as guardian” role was recently described by learning community expert Rick DuFour in The Collaborative Administrator:

“Both their words and their actions convey what must be ‘tight’ in
their schools and districts–those imperatives that all staff members
are expected to observe and honor.  Furthermore, they do not hesitate
to insist that staff act in accordance with the purpose and priorities
of the organization.  They are vigilant in protecting against the
erosion of core values. 

They are empathetically
assertive when necessary.  They are not weak leaders, quite the
contrary.  They are strong leaders who demonstrate a different kind of
strength than the authoritarian control of traditional hierarchies.

They enlist colleagues in a fundamentally moral endeavor—making a
difference in the lives of students—and then work with those
colleagues collectively and collaboratively to succeed in that
endeavor.”  (page 3)

But our building made one significant mistake:  We failed to take the time to develop a set of written vision and values statements to support our school’s mission. 

Vision and values statements in a professional learning community seek to define what your mission statement looks like in action.  They give clarity to vague phrases like “ensure high-student achievement” and “value the unique needs of every learner.”  As Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker first wrote in Professional Learning Communities at Work:

“An effective vision statement articulates a vivid picture of the
organization’s future that is so compelling that a school’s members
will be motivated to work together to make it a reality.”  (page 63)

Vision statements force teachers to detail the specific steps that stakeholders—from parents and students to teachers and principals—-must take in order to fulfill the stated goals of a building’s mission.  The resulting transparency prevents false consensus from destroying the collective action of a building.

Vision statements can be used by existing members of a school community to evaluate new decisions and set priorities, by parents and community leaders to hold schools accountable, and by teaching candidates interested in determining the fit between the beliefs of a building and their own core philosophies.  Finally, vision statements can be used to find short-term successes worth celebrating!

Here is an example of a set of vision statements that I’m currently polishing with my new learning team.  Notice how we’re explicitly making connections between our mission statement and the kinds of decisions that a school must make on a daily basis.  Also, notice how our vision statements are specific enough that we can take real actions to meet them.  They are based on behaviors, rather than beliefs.

When they are complete, these vision statements will serve as practical guides for the day-to-day actions of everyone in my learning team.

Looking back, I’ve realized that the teachers and parents in our building did have a shared vision guiding our day-to-day actions:  We believed in our principal and were willing to work with (and for) him.

He was what we had in common.

And he was masterful at using strong relationships to guide our school towards decisions and actions that ensured we met our mission.  In fact, I’d bet that if you were to ask him to write out a collection of vision statements for our building, he could have done so in no time—and they would have reflected the general consensus of our school and our community.

The problem is that like most accomplished administrators, he eventually moved on—and when he left, our shared sense of purpose collapsed.  Without his careful work to guard our efforts to “ensure high student achievement” and to “value the unique needs of every learner,” our decisions began to drift into contrary directions.

While faculty members still believed in our mission statement, “ensuring high student achievement” began to mean different things to different people.  Some believed that students needed to be taught responsibility and punished for missing assignments, while others believed that content mastery—rather than task completion—was the best way to help students to excel.

We struggled with decisions connected to technology’s role in instruction.  We disagreed with the roles that professionals beyond the classroom should play in student learning.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye on the best ways to provide remediation or enrichment to students.

Had our previous principal remained with our faculty forever,these challenges would never have caused our building to struggle because he would have used his skills as a relationship-builder to guide us towards solutions that met his personal vision—-and we would have happily followed because of our faith in him.  Our shared belief in our principal was the thread holding our faculty together.

The DuFours would argue, however, that a clearly articulated set of vision statements should serve as the thread holding a faculty’s decisions together.  Taking the time to write detailed vision statements from day one eliminates fundamental disagreements, forcing educators to work through conversations about core issues, and detailing consensus for future reference.

Does any of this make sense to you?

Have you ever worked in a building where shared vision statements guided the actions of everyone?  What about in a building where an accomplished administrator served as the visionary—until he or she moved on to a new position?

How does your school go about making shared decisions about direction?


5 thoughts on “The Vision-less Learning Community. . .

  1. I. Nash

    My question is: Shouldn’t every public school’s mission and every teacher’s mission be to ensure/strive for high student achievement? Why do we have to keep re-iterating that philosophy? Are we so brainwashed by the media’s portrayal of public schools that we have to depend on one person or one “player” to ensure that our mission is achieved? Do you think the private sector sits around and rethinks or re-states their mission statement every year? Their mission, their goal, is to sell “X” number of products at a cost of “$Y” to make money. Pharmacutical companies are advertising for products you have to ask your doctor to prescribe…and they are achieving “their goal.”
    What our “mission” needs to be is to do a better job at selling the importance of being educated. That is where we are vulnerable. If we sold our product, education, as though it were a $300 ipod, we wouldn’t have to worry about ensuring anyone’s achievement…they would clamor for it.

  2. Bob Heiny

    Great post, Bill, with intriging comments. Yes, your essay makes sense. I’d reword an inference of your question. First, thanks for expecting teachers to expect more of students. Second, you describe a classic evolution of organizational commitments known to those who oversee and assess how organizations grow and die. Examples in schools are legion, including NCLB, SpEd, etc. (Side note example: legislators push for the most they can get and still receive authorizing signatures, knowing that modifications will follow that could eventually make the legislation mute.) Third, people operate organizations, not words, documents. commitments, or visions. A vision statement in or not in writing is static unless the process that generated it continues. Once the process content, pace or intensity shifts, observers expect results also to change. So, what to do in your situation, given the people with whom you work? The most useful response will come from among your colleagues. I’d suggest your group next consider setting written measurable student learning outcomes. That’s simple to say, more challenging to do, but that’s why teachers get paid the big bucks, right?

  3. Mark Sass

    Bill and Nate, your discussion resonates with me because our school is losing a key player in the transformation we have made over the past four years into a learning community. For us it is time to see if we made changes at our core level, to our culture, and not at the superficial level. Bill, your reference to compliancy versus commitment struck a chord with me. Leadership at our school recently produced an action guide rubric for our teams. In the past we had found that some teams were merely complying with the various aspects of what teams need to accomplish. Instead of asking teams to simply indicate whether or not they had produced essential outcomes, common assessments, analyzed the data, etc., we asked teams to assess themselves based on rubrics. After we rolled out the rubrics to teams, I sensed and heard teams discussing how they could comply with the rubrics without embracing the purpose of them. We had produced vision/value statements as we made our transformation a few years ago, and I wonder if they can get us through our change in leadership as well as guide us form compliance to commitment. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Nate asked:
    Then you think about different mindsets and different histories and philosophies and we, this ever changing group, are to come to a consensus? Better yet we come to consensus but then because we think differently, we remain on a separate page while sharing the notion that we are in agreement…
    How do you take a team that changes regularly, that has superstars traded up, that shares a goal and get them to that end result?
    GREAT questions, Nate—and another example of why vision statements are so important!
    In my thinking, clearly articulated vision statements would be passed across the table to every potential teaching candidate. Existing teachers would say, “This is who we are. Is it who you are?
    If not, there’s no need to move forward with our interview!”
    So often, we’re careless about who we bring into our learning communities. We’re just looking for a good resume or a warm body.
    That can be really detrimental in a building where a central commitment to a shared mission is ESSENTIAL to success!
    In any learning community, people can have different teaching practices—diversity of practices and ideas, in fact, is essential to developing a team’s full potential and collective intelligence.
    What is not okay, however, is for teams to have diversity in their commitment to the core values of a building—and one way to ensure that turnover doesn’t crush the work of your school is to ensure that incredibly detailed vision statements are used to “screen” the people that you hire.
    Does any of this make sense?
    Rock on,

  5. Nate Barton

    I found myself thinking of the old professional athletic teams as I read this piece. The teams where the pros not only played for years and years in the same place, but more than that were actually a part of the community. And not just because the NBA knew it would be a good public relations gesture. They were members of the community because it was their community.
    I grew up in South Florida. I went to one of the first Florida Marlins games, I watched the Heat get stomped by Michael Jordan’s Bulls, and I became a true Miami Dolfan. All of that is lost now. I watched the Marlins go for the World Series and in nearly the next moment trade all of their best players. The hockey team did the same… and sure enough now they have gotten rid of Shaq, not that I really expected him to stay.
    The teams of old are gone forever. I have talked with my father about this. How can someone get behind a team just because it is a team. Teams are made of people, and people are what we connect with. People are why we watch. Anymore I find that I am not so interested in watching because I barely know the people, or worse why should I allow myself to like someone who would just be gone in the next month.
    In many ways I feel like this is a large part of our dilemma. How do you put relevant and lasting structure into something that is transient and regularly in fluctuation?
    New teachers, young teachers, retiring teachers, new admin, retiring admin. Individuals who are great are generally recognized and snatched away. Some recognize that they aren’t in their right place. Some tire. Some can’t handle this difficult system currently in place.
    Then you think about different mindsets and different histories and philosophies and we, this ever changing group, are to come to a consensus? Better yet we come to consensus but then because we think differently, we remain on a separate page while sharing the notion that we are in agreement.
    I feel that I am in a similar situation to yours Bill. I am at a school with caring individuals who, for the most part are really good at what they do. We, as a team, are striving to make the right decisions, to lay the groundwork that can make the change. But this last year we lost three of our faculty. In the previous year it was four. These people were not disenchanted with what our school is doing fro young people. They moved to different towns, went back to school, were snatched away.
    How do you take a team that changes regularly, that has superstars traded up, that shares a goal and get them to that end result?
    Sorry to have answered your question with another question but I really connect with what your saying.

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