It’s no secret that when a principal takes a long look at the myriad of things and tasks to check off daily, weekly, and monthly, there are competing priorities that vie for their attention. In my experience as a school leader and mentor, one task that often gets overlooked is thoroughly examining the school’s mission and vision statements. In my mentoring, I often listen to what frustrates leaders, and one of the first questions I ask is about the school’s mission and vision. How many words on this document truly reflect the students’ lived experiences, and how many practices are the actual products that educators deliver to students?
Many administrators don’t put a lot of stock or thought into the mission; in some cases, they inherited these documents and never sought to review them.
Missions and visions should not be a collection of the most relevant educational terms of the day; if those words are not actualized through the pointed and intentional actions of the staff and monitored for impact by the school leader, then the words on those documents are no more valuable than “smart graffiti” on the walls of your school. Nice to look at, but ultimately insignificant to the operations and culture of the school.
Smart graffiti embodies what usually serves as a land mine for school leaders. The term reflects a lack of clarity for staff. Someone said that you should do these things and have them, so you do without knowing the “why” behind them.
When new school leaders start work, often what is already “in place” does not seem as urgent as what needs to be done. I once was in the chair responsible for changing around a place where “teaching and learning” was the edict, but in actuality, it was not the priority.
When my year-one principal coach suggested I work on mission and vision first, I was thinking about the behavior, the instruction, and the parents. However, my coach was exactly right; the mission is what should be upheld in a productive learning organization. That is where I, as a mentor, begin all of my work with new principals. Without a coherent and understood direction via the mission, there will be misdirection at best and at worst, chaos.
5 Steps to Improve Smart Graffiti Mission Statements
1. Conduct a thorough audit of the action words: The creators often have well-meaning lofty goals in crafting a mission and pack on the most ambitious educational jargon. In the reality of day-to-day instruction, there may not be any evidence that these goals or practices are happening.
A leader and their team of teachers and students can sift through each line and identify the highest-leverage practices and objectives in their documents. From this, a list of “look-fors” should allow a team to examine the school’s practices to determine what transpires daily for teachers and students.
2. Set up a diverse team of stakeholders: Have the team conduct a no-nonsense analysis of whether what the mission said it would do for students is true. This approach is needed because often, as educators, we rely upon context to blanket and shield our ego and passion from the stark reality that things are not what we said they were. In my practice, I often lead with a yes-or-no approach to what I see. The data collected from a walk-through will provide an honest look at the experiences of students and teachers formed via instruction and practices in the building.
3. Destroy and rebuild: As your team sits down to sift through the data collected, if the words in the document do not match the experiences, decide which areas are worth strengthening, adjusting, or removing as a team. Examining and adjusting is another important step because honesty will strengthen the relationship between the leadership, staff, and students if they are included in this process. The results should be shared with the entire school community.
4. Get everyone involved in finding solutions: This share-out time is a major opportunity for collective action and shared responsibility where honesty about what transpires can galvanize or fracture relations with your staff.
Galvanization can transpire if the school community reflects honestly on your operations and how they adhere to the words in the mission and vision. Conversely, fracture can occur if blame is levied solely on the teaching staff as to “why” the words do not match the lived experience. It will need skill and a leader to be the person who takes responsibility for not helping to adequately set the conditions for learning.
5. Set the conditions for change: By this stage, you have shared, pinpointed, and strategized. Now, you have to support the creation of a new doctrine for how students learn best under your leadership through being laser-focused on clarity, expectations, and, most important, how the capacity of every stakeholder will be built to bring these new expectations to life. Nothing amazing happens in a school by accident; leaders must develop and support these expectations. Simply placing some smart graffiti on the walls that tells teachers what they should be doing in service of children and walking away is not leadership; it’s a recipe for confusion.
I ask principals all the time, who is your ideal student? If students go through their full life cycle in your ideal learning environment, who would they be as learners and citizens? What would they be able to produce? What would they be prepared to do upon graduation and afterward? That is your vision; the mission is how they will arrive there. For you as a newer principal, it’s imperative that before you start to “fix” what you believe is holding your school back, you ensure that what the school says is its mission is, in fact, what it produces.