Leading with the why:
The importance of a mission-driven school

While there has been a ton of press about giving families the choice to attend a better school, what we have not talked about is the fact that schools can also be a choice for the educators within them. Schools are as much about fit for educators as they are for students. It was this pursuit that led my family and me to Durango, CO, to lead Animas High School, a project-based learning school, modeled after John Dewey’s project method.  

Ten years ago, Animas High School took up the challenge to be a school of choice for both educators and students.  During my graduate residency at High Tech High in San Diego, CA, I realized that highly functioning schools had educators in them who truly believed in the school’s mission and vision. At Animas and other mission-driven schools, there is such a fit between the school and educators’ values — that the community can rally around these commonalities. Everyone is able to cut through the clutter and focus on a few agreed-upon areas.

What supports do you need to be the best version of you?

So what does this really look like, and is it actually possible? It’s difficult to understand the power of a truly mission-driven school unless you have experienced that fit. It takes the daily trials and tribulations of carrying out that mission in every aspect of a school in order to truly understand the power of being in a mission-driven school. At Animas we have a very specific way of doing things. Yes, we believe in adult learning, refinement, and continuous improvement, plus a smattering of fun; but there is definitely a way of doing things.

What I have come to realize is that just because a teacher does not fit this model, does not mean that he or she is a bad teacher. It means that a teacher might be struggling because the school is not a fit for them. That’s okay! There are a plethora of educational options out there. Whatever the educational model, we are not a one-size-fits-all system anymore. If we are truly doing our profession justice, we need to ensure that teachers find a school that fits them!  

The importance of “why”

Why is it important to have a school where everyone knows the mission, vision, and values?  Simon Sinek stresses the importance of the why in an organization in his TED talk How Great Leaders Inspire Action,. The why is what drives us when we are stressed and motivates us to continue.

As educators we are inundated with the whats of the job: What are we going to do to improve test scores? What curriculum are we teaching? Which students need what support? What parent emails/phone calls do we need to return? What does my administrator want from me? and so on and so forth. We end up more worried about the what of the job than the why of the job. However, if we never get at the why, all these become things to check off our to-do list in order to survive the day. All of this should be geared toward helping our students learn, grow, and become the best versions of themselves. However, none of this is possible if there is not a common vernacular: values that the community agrees are important — a why that compels students, educators, and parents to pull in the same direction.  

The “why” is what keeps you going

Most educators get into the profession to make a difference. Our why is what compels us to enter a profession that has a 50 percent turnover rate within the first five years. We persist because of those lightbulb moments that our students have. Our former students write us letters, stop in for a visit, or run into us at the grocery store and tell us how impactful we were. These are the moments that keep us going. What I have seen is that these moments increase exponentially when educators find their fit in a mission-driven school.

My goal as an administrator is to keep us laser focused on our mission and vision while providing autonomy, resources, and accountability in a collegial atmosphere that helps everyone in our community become the best versions of themselves.

Sean’s post is part of CTQ’s latest blogging roundtable. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on the Teachers leading/leading teachers landing page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.

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