Pandemic Provides New Lens for Clear Mission
Over the past 17 years, I have had the distinct pleasure of working with a wide variety of schools. Some of them were public, others private or charter schools. Some were comprised of students from affluent neighborhoods, while in others, 100 percent of the students qualified for free lunch. Some buildings had over 100 staff members; others had less than 30. As different as these schools may have seemed on the outside, one similarity that never failed to result in some of the most heated and lengthy discussions among staff was the attempt to answer, “Why we do exist?”
That would seem to be a rather simple question, right? As some of these intense discussions are taking place in your building, you may be thinking, “Let’s just get something on paper and move forward to the work that is really going to matter.” Rest assured, this work not only matters, but is vital to the immediate improvement and sustained success of a school.
In the TED Talk, “How Great Leaders Inspire Action,” Simon Sinek points out that highly successful organizations all seem to understand the importance of beginning with a “crystal clear understanding of why their organization exists.” Dr. Lawrence W. Lezotte’s research confirmed, “In the effective school there is a clearly articulated Mission of the school through which the staff shares an understanding of and a commitment to the school’s goals…The issue of Mission is one that must receive substantial discussion.” It was Dr. Rick Dufour, through his work with Professional Learning Communities, that helped us to understand that mission. The “why” was not just a noun or word on a page but rather a verb requiring action and spurring us to do things in a different manner. When we make this shift in our minds it becomes much clearer why these critical discussions around mission or fundamental purpose can become difficult, and why it can be equally challenging to keep everyone engaged in the work. At times it can feel like you’re in the meme where someone is trying to herd cats.
Yet, in working with several schools/departments during the pandemic and talking with a variety of teachers, I noticed that some of their thinking had significantly changed. I believe there are myriad factors that have played into these changes, from learning more about the PLC process to desperately searching for answers to the struggles they were facing as they tried to learn massive amounts of information at lightning speed. However, I have found that a guided reflection of what has been happening this past year has proven more powerful than I could have ever dreamed.
It is powerful not only in the area of mission but in the importance of PLC work in general. It begins by talking about and recognizing all the ways that we have supported our school community. Schools across the country have helped with food distribution, medical support, transportation, counseling, housing, childcare, and a list that can go on forever. We have expanded services that we had already been providing on much smaller scales. Schools and district staff have and continue to support an array of gaps for service organizations. Everyone has a story about how they helped someone or how someone helped them. In fact, it has been amazing to hear the stories and the different ways people/groups/organizations have made a difference.
As the conversation began to wind down, I asked several guiding questions and allowed time for them to reflect on each one:
• Have you stopped to consider what groups/organizations have been focused on student learning and the level to which students are achieving over this same period of time?
• Think about which groups/organizations have been focused on students mastering the required skills and concepts of their current grade level or supporting students who are struggling with the learning.
• Now, using what we know about the purpose of school mission how does what we just discussed impact your thinking in that area?
I could tell when I asked the first question that people were somewhat confused, but as I waited and let them think, I could see some of them begin to write on the paper in front of them. After asking the second question, they again had some wait time, but people started jotting things down much more quickly. After the individual reflection time, whether they met in small or large groups, the conclusion was the same and the answer was simple: us – teachers, support staff, and administrators. In some discussions, parents were also recognized as offering support.
The most interesting discussions revolved around question number three. Earlier this year we talked with these same groups about their mission as a school, district department or the district as a whole. These early conversations often depicted a wide variety of thinking more aligned with that of the first three schools discussed in Whatever It Takes. However, after reflecting on and discussing the three pandemic questions, it was obvious that people were able to recognize the impact of their real-life experience and see the need to write or revise their mission. The “why schools exist” and their “fundamental purpose” became much more evident. It is worth noting these discussions and revisions aligned much better with the Henry Higgins School of thinking.
I am not saying that the pandemic and these three questions are the answer to successfully coming to an agreement on a mission which will lead us to the right work. I am saying that for several large and small groups of teachers, this activity helped support growth and focus on their mission.
The pandemic has taught us much. It has shown us that when a school/district has a “crystal-clear” articulated mission, that makes us, the educators/schools, responsible to act by ensuring ALL students not only learn but do so at high levels. Even a pandemic will not lead us astray. A strong mission focused on the right things provides a constant reference for all decisions, even in times such as these.
DuFour, DuFour, Eakers, & Karhanek (2004). Whatever It Takes – Howe Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
DuFour, Dufour, Eaker, Many, & Mattos (2016). Learning by Doing – A Handbook for Professional Learning Communities at Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Kramer & Schuhl (2017). School Improvement for All – A How-To Guide for Doing The Right Work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Lezotte, L. W. (1991). Correlates of effective schools: The first and second generation. Okemos, MI: Effective Schools Products, Ltd.