(originally published at www.catapultlearning.com)
At one of Catapult Learning’s recent regional leadership conferences, I spent some time with principals and teacher-leaders from our partner schools. We talked about the importance of connecting the dots from the school’s vision and mission to its values, and then all the way down to the daily tasks that each member of the school family engages in. It’s surprising how disconnected the mission and the day-to-day can be from each other. We write beautiful mission statements and hang signs and banners up on the walls, and somehow we expect the pretty words to exert a kind of magic over us, pulling us into their orbit. Sadly, it takes a lot more work than that.
The “big picture” is made up of a thousand connected details. Little children know this, but it’s an easy thing for adults to forget. Our grown-up connect-the-dots puzzles are less obvious, and they aren’t laid out for us to solve, step by step. We choose our own dots and often don’t know what picture we’re forming when we start connecting them. We may think we’re aiming at our mission or vision statement, but our day-to-day routines may add up to a very different picture.
So, during our workshop, I asked the principals and teacher-leaders to start with the vision and mission of the school and work their way down, to see if they could connect the lofty words with the more mundane tasks that make up our days.
One of our partner schools had, as part of its mission statement, the growth of students into responsible citizens. It was a lovely sentiment, but when I asked the school team what values the adults in the school held in order to make that mission real, they were a little stymied by the question. It’s easy to say, “We believe citizenship is important,” but what does that actually mean, in practice?
At first, there was simply repetition of the words from the mission statement, but eventually, the team came up with this statement of values: “School leadership and staff respect and honor the student voice and promote student autonomy.” That’s a clear statement of a value that can, if widely held, help students understand what democratic citizenship means.
The next step is even more crucial: day to day, what does it actually mean to hold that value? What does it mean for the English teacher? What does it mean for the gym teacher? What does it mean for the bus driver? If we say we respect the student voice and want to give students real autonomy, how does each adult, in his or her own particular role, make that come to life?
One team member said, “Well, we have a student government.” I asked if the student government got to make decisions that affected the way the school was run, or if it just concerned itself with the theme of the spring dance. The question was met with some uncomfortable laughter, but it mattered. How can you promote democratic citizenship if students can’t actually cast a vote that means something?
I pushed the idea a little further: what about the cafeteria staff? Are they involved in these core values? Do students have a say in what gets served at lunch? There was more rueful laughter, but no one responded. “Are we afraid that they’d make terrible choices?” I asked, “That you’d have pizza and doughnuts every day?” People nodded and laughed. “But isn’t it our job to help them become informed voters?” I asked. “Isn’t that an important part of responsible citizenship?” Thomas Jefferson was pretty clear that a democracy required an educated and informed citizenry. So why not provide opportunities for students to learn about healthy diets—not just abstractly in their health class, but as part of their role in helping plan the lunch menu? Wouldn’t that be one real expression of how the school embodies its core value and promotes its mission?
Every aspect of a school’s mission statement should have a corresponding value that requires particular behaviors and real commitment on the part of the school staff. Every one of those core values can be expressed, somehow, in the particular day-to-day tasks of each adult working in the school—even the bus driver; even the janitor. Connecting those dots from the ground floor all the way up to the clouds is rigorous and time-consuming work, but it’s worthy and important work. It’s work that pays off, in the long run.
It’s very difficult to manage a mission or a vision. They’re abstract and amorphous and often dreamy. At the same time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the day-to-day needs of the school and feel like you’re on a treadmill of drudgery. But if you’ve taken the time to ensure that the day-to-day tasks connect, in real and meaningful ways, to the mission and purpose of the school, then you won’t have to worry about that mission anymore, and you won’t have to worry that the details are trivial. Make the small details work, and the big picture will take care of itself.