A vision is not just a picture of what could be; it is an appeal to our better selves, a call to become something more. — Rosabeth Moss Kanter

I was recently in a district-level administration meeting where we were planning for the upcoming school year. As is typical in our district, this meeting was relatively casual. Participants freely brainstormed and spitballed ideas for professional learning, campus initiatives, curriculum focus, data points, student progress—you know, the foundational elements of school. 

Director after director, principal after principal, pointed to percentages and reports, surveys and scores, calling out goals that would “provide a clear vision of where we need to move as a district.” 

  • “Our reading scores could be better. This year we’ll increase 11% in standard 3.XYZ.”
  • “Our survey showed that our parents don’t feel a strong sense of involvement with our campus. We need more PTO involvement. We’ll create a Facebook page that will increase awareness.”
  • “We want to include STEM opportunities; let’s host an Hour of Code.”
  • “We want to be sure we’re using our technology; we need to find a program that will track our students’ progress.”

“Whats” the Goal?

At first glance, these suggestions do, indeed, provide parameters. A principal or teacher could take any of the above and apply that lens to focus efforts for the school year. In that way, goals are “whats”— the efforts, tasks, steps, procedures. They offer a snapshot of the end-product that can occur if the proper steps are taken. While many of us agree that’s a step in the right direction, “whats” typically compartmentalize efforts and building tasks instead of culture.

Education is the business of learning. We are not product-based, but instead, are people-driven, interest-driven, and demonstration-driven. As such, we all—regardless of community, economy, demographic, age or any other data point — are compelled by one factor: belief. 

We are called to the business of education because

we believe in the potential of people. 

As professionals, we’re pretty darn good at the “whats.” We know our content standards inside and out. We can quote and demonstrate development theory and brain science, citing the rationale behind pedagogical best practices. We can disaggregate a seemingly jumbled and disconnected series of testing reports and pull a thread of continuity to see where students are struggling, then determine a plan of action to improve their learning experience.

Process Without Passion

These are not small feats. Nonetheless, if our “whats” don’t have a “why”— if our processes don’t have a passion — we will fail in our pursuits.  We cannot go through the paces of performing our “whats” every day if we do not truly see the intention behind our work.

Developing the ‘Why’

We’ve read countless articles, clung to the words of speakers recounting their journeys of school transformation, all compelling us to find the holy grail of a culture of innovation. The culture serves as the heartbeat of an organization. It’s the steady pulse of “why” that transforms our needs from must-do action items into rallying cries of purpose-filled impact that will improve the lives of our children.

Sounds like an insurmountable challenge, right? Actually, the key to culture is unifying the work through common vision. 

Vision Quest

As we began our vision quest in my district, we knew that we wanted the input and buy-in of the community, families, and faculty that we serve. While there is commonality of interest among these parties, we recognized that each had unique perspectives. We wanted to limit influence from others therefore, we met with these stakeholders as organizational entities. In each session, we asked the same questions and took scrupulous notes to be sure to capture the intent and beliefs of all involved. 

What do we do?

  • List out the goals.

How do we do it?

  • List the options and choices available.

Who is this for?

  • These answers often start as broad-brushed demographic categories, but please don’t stop there. To be truly effective with this question, ask each person to think of a specific child who will benefit. Give time to allow individuals to reflect on that child’s needs around this goal. What is she challenged with? What is he not getting [content, access, support, opportunity, voice, etc.]? 

Why is this important?

  • Take that specific child and process through the benefits and impact that will come. 

It’s interesting to note that, with one small exception, the responses that came from these meetings were very similar and allowed us to establish six core values centering on this underlying principle:

Developing the potential of every student, every day.

This vision sets the tone for every lesson, business decision, resource, device (you get the idea) considered in our district. The litmus test is simple: is it what is best for kids?

Visions are not reserved for superintendents, school boards, or principals.

Empower every member of the organization to see the power of her impact by defining her why and you will most certainly achieve that culture of innovation and true transformational learning for everyone.

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