mission, leader, leadership, school, covid, promise, expression, students, mission statement, road map, community

Confessions of a True Mission Wonk (Even During Covid!)

I know, I know. Eyes glaze over. Comments abound: “Mission? Don’t they all sound the same?” “I don’t really pay attention to them!” “Do they matter?” Sigh. Here’s my story of an early addiction to mission and, I hope, the case for why a mission statement matters—to you as a leader and to the school you lead. And I’d make the case that it matters even more now, during the Covid challenge.

A wise school leader once told me, “A mission statement is the 30,000-foot guide to where the school is heading AND it’s lived on a daily basis in the relationship between a student and teacher.” I’ve always loved that idea: that the mission is the Big Idea and it also comes to life between a teacher and student. Grand and institutional, intimate and relational.

The “punch” of a mission statement is its aspirational promise and its real-life expression. It’s the guide to decision-making, school wide, as well as in the classroom. It protects a school from the “cult of personality” and the temptation to be guided by an individual head’s notions of what to do next. It’s bigger than any individual leader and it’s palpable in the students in our care. It should be the measuring stick for the success of the school: far better than the shiniest new building or the most competitive college admissions list. And it should be visible and talk-worthy for the whole community. Shouldn’t everyone know why we’re doing what we’re doing, especially our students?

So here are a few of the “punchiest” school mission statements I know. Early in my career, I was taken by the Phillips Exeter Academy mission from 1781 that “though goodness without knowledge is weak and feeble, yet knowledge without goodness is dangerous, and that both united form the noblest character, and lay the surest foundation of usefulness to mankind.” Here it is: the case for intellectual growth and character development, combined. The job of mission implementation with this mission is clearly bigger than tracking average SAT scores—and it would be much messier because as leaders we would have to figure out how to measure character, service, empathy, resilience, backbone.

One of my current favorites is a six-word mission statement from The Saklan School, a PK-8 school in northern California: “Think Creatively, Act Compassionately, Live Courageously.” Every adult—and every child—in that school can recite the mission statement, and imagine the generative conversations that arise from figuring out how to ascertain creativity in thinking, the exercise of compassion on a daily basis, and what it looks like to be “courageous.” What fruitful conversations for the community. And what a zingy message for all students about what their school hopes for them.

How would you feel if you were a student at The Madeira School in northern Virginia, knowing that the mission for your school is “Launching women who change the world.” And for senior leaders and teachers, multiple questions: what does a young woman need to be “launched” into today’s world successfully? How will we practice changing the world today in order for our students to be ready to change it tomorrow?

Aspirational, informational, practical, measurable. A good mission statement needs to be the road map for strategic planning and—equally important-- translated into the building blocks of student growth and development.

So now to Covid. How many mission statements talk about “leaders of tomorrow,” “innovators,” “problem-solvers,” “change agents,” “meeting challenges?” And now—right in front of their eyes—students are seeing schools change dramatically in order to meet the greatest educational challenges of the past century. I’d encourage the hard-working, brave school leaders who are facing this upheaval to articulate to students what’s happening and why—in light of their mission statements. This is a real-life challenge of epic proportions. Share with the students and your community what it means to be a leader in these times—and use that mission statement that you have posted on the wall and on your website to highlight how you’re handling this pandemic. What’s good and what’s difficult. It’s not self-serving; it’s a teachable moment. It’s your mission. And it will make a difference for the students you serve.