Most first-year or veteran principals who are newly assigned to their school eventually must affirm the school’s existing mission and vision statements or engage stakeholders in a process of revising them. Sometimes, those statements incorporate and reflect district-wide beliefs, values, ideals, and goals.
When I was a new principal, I struggled with mission and vision statements. I didn’t understand the difference or how to utilize them. Regardless of what I might have learned about them in my preparatory classes, I was overwhelmed by day-to-day challenges. So as a result, any of the existing statements developed by the previous administration and posted throughout the school meant little to me.
That changed, however, when the parent of one of our school’s students with a disability, Billy (not his real name), stumped me one day with this question: “Why does this school exist?” Her son had intense needs. I had spoken with her numerous times but now wondered what had prompted the question. As we talked about why our school existed and what we hoped to achieve—for her son and everyone else—our discussion suddenly helped both of us form a much more meaningful concept of mission and vision.
Our school’s mission (why we existed) was to teach.
Our vision, reflecting shared beliefs, values, and specific, purposeful goals, was the summation of desired outcomes we wanted, along with strategic plans to achieve them.
Billy’s mother eloquently stated, “I just want three things from this school. First, I want my son to learn the basic skills that he will need to get a job someday.” (As I listened, I was thinking to myself that I certainly wanted the same for my daughters.) “Two, I want him to develop good, appropriate social skills so that when he grows up and buys the house next to yours, you won’t want to move.” (I was really listening now.) “And third, I want him to learn to appreciate the finer things in life so that he doesn’t grow up to be a couch potato.” (Wow, she had clarified a vision for her son that any parent should want for their child.)
Missions and visions
The more I thought about it—then and since—the universal mission of every school is to teach. Academics, social skills, creative thinking, healthy living, good choices, and much more. We can embellish the concept of teaching with fancy words that signify academic achievement, physical growth, personal development, wisdom, virtues, transformations, etc., but it all boils down to this: The reason that schools exist is for teaching. Everyone is free to choose their own descriptive words of purpose, but I preferred succinct, easy-to-remember, and personalized wording. And Billy’s mom had helped me shape our mission and vision.
As I discussed the mission with my staff, we rallied around the ideal that our primary focus was to teach—academics, behaviors, social skills, and aspirations in ways that were most timely, appropriate, individualized, and effective for every child. I helped my staff reflect on their practice and question themselves—if what they were doing didn’t teach, why were they doing it?
My advice for principals—regardless of the wording of your mission statement—is to understand these two basic concepts:
- Your mission is why you exist.
- Your vision is how you accomplish goals.
Many vision and mission statements are closely related and often used interchangeably. When both are well conceived and meaningful, they can drive your school community’s focus. However, many are often not as effective as they could be.
At my school, once we agreed that our purpose was to teach (mission), we turned our attention to fulfilling the beliefs, values, and goals embedded in what Billy’s mom had asked for her son (vision). The three visionary targets remained the same, regardless of where each child started.
Academics became more individualized with rigor while teaching the concept of grit. The development of a schoolwide code of conduct (focused on quality work, respect, safety, and kindness) resulted in more effective, personalized ways of teaching social skills and positive behaviors. And so that no student would become a couch potato, we infused the arts and extracurricular activities into every aspect of school that we could think of, teaching and coaching their meaning and value.
I’m forever indebted to Billy’s mom. She helped me and my staff conceptualize, personalize, and solidify our thinking, define our “why” (mission), and teach to meet the needs of every student. Parents rallied together with me and my teachers around those three stated expectations (vision) from our school—so concise and clear that we have never forgotten them, and never will.
I hope every principal encounters someone like Billy’s mom. When you do, listen, collaborate closely, and learn. Together, you’ll develop the most meaningful awareness of why you do what you do.