The Importance of a Clear Vision. . .

By now, you’ve probably figured out that I do a ton of reading and writing about professional learning communities.

It’s an idea that I’ve embraced as a powerful tool for change simply because I’ve seen the impact that my own learning team has had on my personal development as an educator.  And recently, I’ve been doing a ton of writing about the importance of having solid mission and vision statements to guide the direction of professional learning communities.

I just heard your collective groan—but I completely understand your pain:  After all, mission and vision statements are usually about as effective as the crank pencil sharpener hanging off the wall in the back of your classroom, aren’t they. If you’re lucky, you get you a serious point on your Ticonderoga #2 with a few quick turns of the nifty little nickel plated handle, but most of the time you grind away without getting anywhere quick.

What’s crazy is that when well designed and implemented, mission and vision statements can bring a clarity to decision-making that makes everyone’s work easier.  In fact, DuFour and Eaker go as far as to argue that every decision in a building ought to be held up against a school’s mission and vision before being implemented.  They write:

When educators have a clear sense of purpose, direction and the ideal future state of their school, they are better able to understand their ongoing roles within the school.  This clarity simplifies the decision making process and empowers all members of the staff to act with greater confidence.  Rather than constantly checking with their bosses for approval, employees can simply ask, “Is this decision or action in line with the vision?”  and then act on their own. (DuFour & Eaker, p. 84)

Think about how powerful a school working from this position would be.  There’d be no disagreements  because every decision would be aligned with a shared vision of what the purpose of a school should be.  No one would struggle to “see eye to eye” because everyone would be looking out of the same set of lenses!

To DuFour and Eaker, a school’s mission and vision statement should serve as “an agenda for action:”

A shared vision creates an agenda for action.  A vision statement enables a faculty to assess current policies, practices, programs, and performance indicators and then to identify discrepancies between the existing conditions in the school and those described in the vision statement.  (DuFour & Eaker, p. 84)

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it.

Stuck when choosing a new teacher to add to your faculty?  Who has convinced you that your mission is his/her mission?  Trying to decide what technology to buy?  The one that helps you to meet your shared goals is the choice.  Need to figure out how students should spend the 20 minutes that they have free after lunch?  How can you use that time to get you closer towards the reality that you’re trying to reach?

The list of questions could go on forever, couldn’t it:  What professional development is appropriate for your faculty?  How should teachers interact with one another during planning meetings?  What roles should the education professionals working beyond the classroom in your building fill?  Where should resources be allocated?  What kinds of field trips should you take?  What materials should be available in the supply closet?  How often should the school communicate with parents?  What kinds of after school activities need to be offered?

In a traditional school, these kinds of questions generate tons and tons of conflict, don’t they?  Teachers push their own programs and agendas.  Employees beyond the classroom look at what works from their own perspective and experiences.  Competition—for time, attention and limited resources—becomes the norm, replacing collaboration and destroying any attempt at consensus.

In a highly-functioning PLC, these decisions are simple:  Which of the available choices would we pick if our mission and our vision were the most important factor in our decisions?

Sadly, mission and vision statements get set aside in most learning communities as people settle into comfortable patterns and work to avoid contention.  In fact, I’d bet that well over half of the educators working in most learning communities couldn’t even state their building’s mission and vision statements—and who can blame them.  If schools fail to systematically work to set their mission and vision at the core of every key decision, should it be any surprise that we slip back to the practices that have defined our profession for a century?!

What’s interesting is that DuFour and Eaker believe that keeping a mission and vision at the center of a learning community’s attention may just take a bit of confrontation:

If the vision and values of the school are to be communicated in a clear and unequivocal manner, those who violate the vision and values must be confronted.  In an ideal world, every member of the staff would be willing to challenge a colleague who was acting in a way that was contrary to collective commitments.  In the real world of schools, this task will most likely fall to principals.  It is critical that principals fulfill this leadership responsibility if vision and values are to be reinforced.

(DuFour & Eaker, p. 112)

Hardcore, ain’t it?  When decisions are being made that fail to align with the mission and vision of a building, someone has some ‘splainin to do!

But it makes perfect sense:  Schools need laser-like focus to do their work well.  Mission and vision statements provide this focus.  Aligned decisions are impossible unless they’re based on agreed upon set of priorities.  People forget the priorities, friendly reminders—-or swift kicks in the backside!—-gotta come from someone!

What I like the best about DuFour and Eaker’s thoughts on mission and vision statements is their insistence that learning communities use their collective commitments to take action:

Throughout the school, there is an ongoing concern for improving instructional effectiveness.  No one is complacent about student achievement; there is an expectation that educational programs will be changed so that they work better.

(DuFour & Eaker, p. 317)

So whaddya’ think?  Are mission and vision statements being used to drive the decisions in your building?  If so, how did your staff get to this point?  What did your leaders do to reinforce the message that your vision matters—and that key decisions are simple to make as long as they align with your agreed upon mission?

If not, what kind of conflict has lack of a shared mission and vision caused?

Works Cited:

DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement.Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree (Formerly National Education Service).

4 thoughts on “The Importance of a Clear Vision. . .

  1. Chris

    I was catching up on RSS feeds to end the week and read this with great interest because it jives completely with the discussion I had with our school district’s Director of staff development yesterday.
    Our buildings have vision and mission statements that no one knows or cares about. Asking the staffs to revisit them is just going to be an act in frustration for teachers unless we provide a new framework. They need to think of the vision and mission statement not as a BUILDING vision statement, but as a SHARED PERSONAL ACTION statement. There is no connection between the building statement and the teachers individually.
    It might be time to have all buildings throw out the mission/vision statements and re-craft them as ACTION statements. 1-3 brutally short things that the building stands for. Then as decisions need to be made, they can be judged in an instant by holding them to the building’s core ideals.
    By the way, I just read the book “Made to Stick” and am finding it to be incredibly prescient in reframing how I approach some things I have been doing “wrong” for years. You might enjoy it as well.

  2. Paul Cancellieri

    Bill,
    I agree that PLC’s have great potential, but I find that this level of small-group leadership doesn’t work for me. I mean, don’t all schools have the same goals? I know that individuals can have some different perspectives, but aren’t we all trying to educate kids? It seems to me that we can easily take this process too far: Should I use red pen or blue pen to grade papers? Check the mission statement.
    I admit that I am still struggling to incorporate more informal assessment and data analysis to make better use of my PLC. Can a couple of sentences really drive *everything*?

  3. Joe

    My school has a mission statement somewhere, but I haven’t really seen it referenced much lately…
    And while I mostly agree here, this worship of mission statements seems a bit unhealthy and slightly authoritarian. Do what I tell you, or pack your bags… I mean, haven’t the last 8 years of government told us to think otherwise about this leadership mentality? Is there a place for a more deliberative democratic approach to this? After all, isn’t that how social institutions ultimately better themselves? Maybe I’m missing your point here…it’s been a really odd day for me, but this post comes across as slightly fascist.

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