The vision-less learning community. . .

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to join the faculty of a brand new school that was opening as a professional learning community.  Our administrator was nothing short of remarkable—one of those top ten-percenters who was able to single-handedly inspire passion and develop a shared sense of commitment and purpose.

And our early work was nothing short of amazing!

Perhaps most meaningful were our conversations around our school’s mission statement.  Unlike the overly generic mission statements posted in almost every school that I’d worked in early in my career, our mission statement became a great source of pride for our building because we created it together!

The process was powerful, forcing us to wrestle with core ideas about teaching and learning.  Specifically, we struggled to decide whether or not our school’s mission should be to “strive for high student achievement” or to “ensure high student achievement.”

While this may seem like a small semantic shift, “ensuring high student achievement” seemed pretty intimidating to us.  Like many educators, we immediately began throwing out all kinds of reasons why ensuring student achievement was impossible.  “What about the kids who don’t do their homework?” some argued.  “Surely, we can’t ensure high-student achievement for them!”

“Right!” chimed in others.  “And what about the kids from families who just don’t care?  I’m not about to promise to ensure anything that I can’t control.”

But simply promising to “strive for” high student achievement didn’t sit well with our principal.  He wanted to see something more out of our building, and he said so:  “Guys, I actually believe in you.  If I didn’t think that you could ensure high student achievement, you wouldn’t be sitting in this room right now.

“More importantly, ensuring high student achievement is the right thing to do, isn’t it?  Shouldn’t the parents of our students know that we are going to do more than just give it the good ol’ college try?  The success of their children is too important to just hope that teachers are striving for excellence.”

Because of our commitment to him—and because he had so obviously shown faith in us—the thinking in the room slowly shifted.  Instead of being intimidated by “ensuring high student achievement,” we saw it as a moral obligation.  Our final mission statement reflected that sense of deep purpose, reading:

Our school is a collaborative community that ensures high student achievement and values the unique needs of each learner.

Our principal had appealed to the core of who we were as professionals, inspiring us to take on a challenge that many schools shy away from.  There wasn’t a person in that room who didn’t believe in him because he had made constant efforts to show us that he cared about us as professionals and as people.

This attention to relationships allowed him to move us from what Kenneth Williams calls—in his chapter of The Collaborative Administrator—compliance to commitment:

“Ensuring the learning of every student requires more than compliance, however.  Learning for all students requires deep levels of commitment from all stakeholders, and that is nurtured through principals developing relationships with teachers that foster trust, integrity, collaboration, and ownership.  The ambitious mission of learning for all can only be accomplished through the deep commitment of teachers.”  (page 73)

For the next three years, our mission statement drove every decision in our school.  There wasn’t a moment when “ensuring high student achievement” was far from our mind.  In fact, every time that we ran a new idea by our principal, his first question was always, “Can you show me how this ensures high student achievement or values the unique needs of every learner?”

We got to the point where we’d carefully research everything, making natural connections between best practice, our proposals and our school’s mission statement.  We knew that the more evidence that we could pile behind our plan, the more likely our principal was to support us in our actions.

We also knew that if our decision couldn’t be clearly connected to “ensuring high student achievement” or “valuing the unique needs of every learner,” we’d be answering a collection of difficult questions from the bossman!  He’d either turn us away—or he’d force us to refine and revise until our ideas aligned with our school’s mission.

This all sounds great, doesn’t it?

Isn’t the goal of any professional learning community to establish a powerful, shared mission that is used to drive the actions of stakeholders?  And shouldn’t principals serve as the protectors of the mission, questioning decisions that seems out of alignment with the overall goals of the community?

Absolutely!  In fact, the “principal as guardian” role was recently described by learning community expert Rick DuFour in The Collaborative Administrator:

“Both their words and their actions convey what must be ‘tight’ in their schools and districts–those imperatives that all staff members are expected to observe and honor.  Furthermore, they do not hesitate to insist that staff act in accordance with the purpose and priorities of the organization.  They are vigilant in protecting against the erosion of core values. 

They are empathetically assertive when necessary.  They are not weak leaders, quite the contrary.  They are strong leaders who demonstrate a different kind of strength than the authoritarian control of traditional hierarchies.

They enlist colleagues in a fundamentally moral endeavor—making a difference in the lives of students—and then work with those colleagues collectively and collaboratively to succeed in that endeavor.”  (page 3)

But our building made one significant mistake:  We failed to take the time to develop a set of written vision and values statements to support our school’s mission. 

Vision and values statements in a professional learning community seek to define what your mission statement looks like in action.  They give clarity to vague phrases like “ensure high-student achievement” and “value the unique needs of every learner.”  As Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker first wrote in Professional Learning Communities at Work:

“An effective vision statement articulates a vivid picture of the organization’s future that is so compelling that a school’s members will be motivated to work together to make it a reality.”  (page 63)

Vision statements force teachers to detail the specific steps that stakeholders—from parents and students to teachers and principals—-must take in order to fulfill the stated goals of a building’s mission.  The resulting transparency prevents false consensus from destroying the collective action of a building.

Vision statements can be used by existing members of a school community to evaluate new decisions and set priorities, by parents and community leaders to hold schools accountable, and by teaching candidates interested in determining the fit between the beliefs of a building and their own core philosophies.  Finally, vision statements can be used to find short-term successes worth celebrating!

Here is an example of a set of vision statements that I’m currently polishing with my new learning team.  Notice how we’re explicitly making connections between our mission statement and the kinds of decisions that a school must make on a daily basis.  Also, notice how our vision statements are specific enough that we can take real actions to meet them.  They are based on behaviors, rather than beliefs.

When they are complete, these vision statements will serve as practical guides for the day-to-day actions of everyone in my learning team.

Looking back, I’ve realized that the teachers and parents in our building did have a shared vision guiding our day-to-day actions:  We believed in our principal and were willing to work with (and for) him.

He was what we had in common.

And he was masterful at using strong relationships to guide our school towards decisions and actions that ensured we met our mission.  In fact, I’d bet that if you were to ask him to write out a collection of vision statements for our building, he could have done so in no time—and they would have reflected the general consensus of our school and our community.

The problem is that like most accomplished administrators, he eventually moved on—and when he left, our shared sense of purpose collapsed.  Without his careful work to guard our efforts to “ensure high student achievement” and to “value the unique needs of every learner,” our decisions began to drift into contrary directions.

While faculty members still believed in our mission statement, “ensuring high student achievement” began to mean different things to different people.  Some believed that students needed to be taught responsibility and punished for missing assignments, while others believed that content mastery—rather than task completion—was the best way to help students to excel.

We struggled with decisions connected to technology’s role in instruction.  We disagreed with the roles that professionals beyond the classroom should play in student learning.  We didn’t see eye-to-eye on the best ways to provide remediation or enrichment to students.

Had our previous principal remained with our faculty forever, these challenges would never have caused our building to struggle because he would have used his skills as a relationship-builder to guide us towards solutions that met his personal vision—-and we would have happily followed because of our faith in him.  Our shared belief in our principal was the thread holding our faculty together.

The DuFours would argue, however, that a clearly articulated set of vision statements should serve as the thread holding a faculty’s decisions together.  Taking the time to write detailed vision statements from day one eliminates fundamental disagreements, forcing educators to work through conversations about core issues, and detailing consensus for future reference.

Does any of this make sense to you?

Have you ever worked in a building where shared vision statements guided the actions of everyone?  What about in a building where an accomplished administrator served as the visionary—until he or she moved on to a new position?

How does your school go about making shared decisions about direction?

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