A strong vision allows schools to make learning efficient and powerful for its students

As the visitor walked down the hallway at the school, she spoke with every teacher she encountered. “What does your school stand for and what are the principles that drive the eduction of the children here?” she asked. Each teacher thought for a moment, and gave a coherent response. Some of them were outstanding, and the visitor felt that she would love to have her children attend this institution. Others were canned catch-phrase responses, while others still were sorely lacking with no educational foundation, but it got the visitor to move on. No two of them were the same, unfortunately. Why is that?

That situation could have played out every year of my nearly four decade career. I have researched schools online, and I’ve found amazing vision statements, and “we believe” statements and “ideas we practice” statements. Are any of them followed or are they just words that sound good? Some are followed, I imagine. If they are, then the school has direction, and it has unifying ideas. The team, no matter their role in the school, can all work toward the same goals and dedicate themselves to an overarching idea that governs learning. With a unified approach to which everyone in the school is devoted, the students will receive an education that is marked with consistency, seamless transitions from year to year, and focused instruction.

I have spent most of my life in the San Juan Unified School district. I attended school there for grades 5-12, I student taught there and then I became a teacher and spent my entire career within that district. I saw a lot of changes over the time. The one consistency that left me frustrated was that whenever something new came along, one could be sure that it wouldn’t last for more than 3-4 years. Just when people were getting proficient in the newest pedagogy that the district trotted out, the leaders jumped us into the next revolutionary idea that would change the educational world of its students. That cycle prevailed for most of my 37 years as an educator in San Juan. I bring this up because, at one point, strategic plans were the hot topic. The district created its plan, and then each school had to devise its own plan under the umbrella of the district plan. It was like a state constitution under the nation’s constitution, if you will.  I got in on the process: I was in charge of the curriculum piece of my school’s plan. It was interesting and provoked a great deal of thought as my team and I built a foundation of learning for our young people. I took it quite seriously and gave a huge amount of time toward the project as I really felt that I had the chance to shape the educational pathway of the school’s students. I could really make an imprint on the school in this capacity. When it was finished, I thought we had a great product. The plan was the instructional roadmap for DPM for years to come. We had a focus, we had direction, and we had something to which we could dedicate ourselves.

During the writing of the plan, the entire staff was challenged to create a vision statement. We spent hours and hours on the writing of that statement. We examined numerous visions from a multitude of schools. We debated the main idea behind what we wanted to say and for what we wanted to be known. We challenged each other’s thoughts on finding just the precise word that was desired. I was proud to not only contribute to the process, but also to lead it. Because the staff was fully involved, it seemed that all of us would be dedicated to implementing the idea and the thrust for our school.

Wrong. All wrong. Just because people helped write the statement didn’t mean that they would dedicate themselves to following it. The task itself was invigorating for me as there was some intellectual give and take behind it, real discussion of what we wanted for our school. When we finished, I felt we had an amazing statement that the community could get behind and be proud that their children attended a school that was devoted to such an incredible idea. We had put many hours into the creation of this product so it seemed that everyone would work to make it the driving force of their classrooms.

Wrong. All wrong. People quickly reverted back to what they always did. The statement was on the website, but that was about as widespread as it would get for the school. It got to the point where no one could even say it aloud, and they laughed that they forgot it. So much for the drive and direction of the school. I guess we got an intellectual exercise from the project, but for most people, that was the extent of all that discussion; all those valuable hours were destined for the dumpster.

We still had the strategic plan that needed to be followed, though. Nope, wrong again. We were supposed to meet and check in with how the implementation of the plan was going, but, well, it wasn’t going in earnest. The administrator didn’t want to “stress people out” with too rigorous of a schedule of putting the plan into play, so people dragged their feet. Eventually, three years later, it was time to update of the plan, as per the direction of the district. So, we went back to it and updated the plan simplifying it in the hope that we could get more of the original plan into the school. We removed the idea of teaching the full set of 21st Century Skills and narrowed it to the four C’s; the whole set of 21st Century Skills was evidently more than people could manage. Well, yes it is if you don’t strive to fold them into the program. At least this would be manageable for people. Nope, wrong again.

It seemed that whenever we were given time to collectively develop the skills of the four C’s in our school, people would come to me and ask what they were. Come on people, there are only four of them and they all start with a “C”! How hard could this be? This just screamed how the work that was done on the strategic plan and all the hours put into devising a set of academic guidelines for the school was a waste of time. Not to worry though; schools had to follow their plans as per the district. Guess what-wrong again.

Before too long, the district decided that schools not only didn’t have to follow their strategic plans any longer, but they didn’t have to write a plan, either. It was said that the “smart” schools waited to write their plan and never even wrote one. They knew that “this too shall pass” and never put the time into creating a guide for their school and its students. Why was everyone so against having an agreed upon set of beliefs and actions that would govern their school?

I want to say that the lack of commitment for a guiding document for schools comes from the top. With the district shifting gears so quickly, do schools know that they can wait out the latest new idea that will “revolutionize” test scores? And, make no mistake, it is all about test scores for the school district. What a sad notion that test scores drive districts’ programs. That’s another article, though. Even though the district may have flash in the pan ideas, if an idea is good, why shouldn’t a school adopt it?  Why would a school be so against having an identity, having principles on which to hang its teachings upon?

The short answer is that education has so many aspects to it, and the list of obligations for schools and teachers continues to grow. Where is the time to put toward creating the guiding pieces for a school? It’s a great time investment just to write a plan, but then to develop and implement the guidelines, it takes an enormous amount of time as well as great effort. Yet, why not start simple? Why not develop a list of beliefs on which all teachers can agree? If those beliefs were to be drawn out from teachers and charted on a wall for reflection, it would be found that there are some common thoughts that the staff shares, and that’s the place to start. However, as I have seen, just because some simple ideas that form a starting point are found, if the principal doesn’t believe in the process, then it will go nowhere. That is what I have largely found. Why would a principal of a school not want ideas that synthesize the program at his or her school? To me, that is absolutely absurd.

I was on the school’s leadership team for years and years. The popularity of writing vision statements and planning schoolwide guidelines for our students ebbed and flowed over those years. There was a time where I was a major player in facilitating those important components of a school. I loved it as being one to drive the philosophy of an institution and help fine tune what that institution will bring to its students was something I was ready for. I had enough years behind me that I could draw on my experiences as well as my research. I could pay forward my knowledge.

I believed that schools should have defining guidelines, and I poured myself into leading my school to write and live by those guidelines. However, as time went by and administrators changed, and the draws on teacher time increased, and the ridiculous challenges within classrooms escalated, the idea of guiding thoughts to tie a school together simply vanished. We seemed to be in a situation where we could only accomplish what had to be done, and at the end of each day, we were exhausted. Teaching is hard, have not one doubt about that. The thought of being philosophical to be able to voice what our school was and what it stood for was so beyond what people could manage, and they truly weren’t seeing the benefit of it. It was all about the nuts and bolts.
There appeared to be a window that opened slightly in my final year. Prior to school, we did some staff development, and some guiding ideas from the staff were created. Posters were made, and one of the administrators indicated that she would like to work on those thoughts. She and I discussed the direction that we could take, and I was warily excited that maybe, just maybe, the idea of unifying thoughts could be approached once more. However, that was short lived as the day to day demands of the institution took over, and the opportunity to build on the ideas dwindled and then disappeared. Truly, the school at which I ended my career was a challenging one in which to educate students, there is no question about that at all. Yet, to me, a time came during that year where unifying concepts would have been an asset to the staff, had they been developed, practiced and were a part of our school culture and expectations every day.

The Coronavirus struck, and by March 13, everyone was sent home for three weeks. The idea was that we would build some enrichment learning for our students, but they didn’t have to do it. What? The district was making us put time into an enrichment program, but no one had to do one bit of it, if they didn’t want to? Why? That made no sense to me whatsoever. The district was saying, “Work really hard for your students but if they don’t want to do any of what you design, they need not bother.” How does that benefit anyone? Later, it came down that school would fully go online for the rest of the school year. We had to develop a program for our students to move the learning forward while hosting Zoom sessions. The challenge was on.

There was such disparity in the quality of education that was given to our school’s students. Whereas I was giving 2.5 hours of Zoom learning each day, some colleagues didn’t total that for an entire week. At 2.5 hours, I didn’t feel I was able to move my students’ education forward tremendously much. Scratch the surface of learning and try to build as strong a bridge to next year as possible-that was my goal. But, what about the other classes at the school that were barely online? They had students who didn’t understand English, and so how could those kids move forward? What if we had some guiding principles in place to drive our instruction? If there was a centralized plan, a vision, and some ideas under which we could build a program, a mission, would there have been more effective instruction offered? I scream, “Yes!”

If we all had the same objectives as we moved into distance learning, objectives that we had written and agreed upon, wouldn’t we be able to successfully attain those objectives much easier? If the goals of the school were clear, couldn’t we each build our programs with the idea that we will all work toward the same goal and devise a solid program for our students? We would have achieved the goal in different ways, ways that would have worked for each teacher’s children, but because we worked for the same goal, the kids would have come out with learning that would allow them to move forward and be better ready for the next year. The handoff to the next teacher could have been much more seamless as everyone would have had the same vision, and each teacher would know that the school’s focus had been supported and worked toward. A collective vision keeps the focus on the core matters of a school from its academics to its ways of social instruction to the emotional support of each child and it all leads to the well being of every student in his or her entirety. How much easier it would have been to build a cohesive program in the midst of a pandemic rather than have everyone scramble their own direction. I know that some classes had weeks where no one even came online to learn. How can that be? Had there been a plan for the instructors, a framework from which to work, the level of learning could have been elevated to some extent. Interest and student engagement would be increased if there was a focus. They would want to continue their journey and add to the story that was being written for the year. Instead, every instructor had no guidance and no schoolwide plan toward which he or she could work. The result: disjointed learning and kids less prepared for the next school year.

If a school wants to move its students forward there must be an agreed upon set of ideas. There needs to be a sense of purpose across the whole school, and every employee has got to be dedicated to that sense of purpose, no matter his or her role. If each class worked toward that purpose on a daily basis, the students would have a stronger education, the community stakeholders would know what their children would be receiving, and the staff would have a unified approach to educating the students. It takes a leader to be responsible enough to see the value of a vision and ensure that it is the guiding thought throughout the school. Without the support of administrators, teachers are left to flail, and if the teachers flail, no matter how good they are, there will not be a unified stream of education within the school. So, people end up reverting to a nuts and bolts world: give me the basics of what I need for my job, and I will go do it. Yet, when everyone from grade to grade is doing what they think is the right thing to do with no vision of where the school’s students will end, how is powerful, efficient instruction generated throughout the school?

As a visionary, I found it difficult to function in settings where there is disjointed learning for young people. Learning is hard enough, but shouldn’t there be learning with an end goal in place? The end goal should be developed year by year with each grade contributing to said goal.  At the end of the line, students should have a strong, connected base of knowledge. But, when there is no vision, the learning can be scattered. It’s the difference between reading a book chapter by chapter as opposed to reading chapters out of order. The end result should be a story that makes sense and is clear as opposed to one that has to be pieced together because the elements had no order to them.

I wasn’t always a visionary. When I was young, I was enthusiastic, and I didn’t initially even think about a vision for a school. As time went on, I saw the need to put an overarching goal in place. As I gained more experience and knowledge, I had more to contribute. Yet, it was my final years when people stopped asking. At the point where I had the most I could offer, no one cared what I thought any longer. With nearly 40 years in the profession and no one else more experienced in the school, I would think that people might be interested in my thoughts. But, my time had passed. I eventually left the leadership team in the middle of my final year. My voice had been silenced to the point where my time was being wasted. I refused to waste my time; I would keep the gifts I had to myself because no one wanted them. I saw the writing on the wall: it was time to leave. It’s hard to be a visionary in a nuts and bolts world, and so, I walked away with my ideas untapped for the final years of my career. It seems like such a waste not unlike a school that lacks its own vision.

For further reading:

School Mission Statements: Where Is Your School Going?, from Education World

Do You Know Your School's Vision? Tips on Making a Meaningful Mission Statement, from Education Week Teacher

Strengthen school vision with technology, from ISTE

Vision, Leadership, and Change, from SEDL

For students to assemble the puzzle clearly and efficiently, a clear vision that everyone agrees upon is needed.