Mission and vision statements in education are powerful declarations.

Hey Advocates,

I know I can't be the only one up at 2 a.m. wondering about mission and vision statements. Let's be real. If I'm up at 2 a.m., it's probably because I'm wondering about a large piece of chocolate cake or a large chocolate milkshake. It's definitely not because I'm pondering the ins and outs of designing mission and vision statements. Since we are here, though, we might as well have a conversation about them. 

A mission statement and vision statement are a company's superpower. As a matter of fact, before I patronage a business, I want to know what values, morals, ethics, and principles they intend to honor and uphold. A company's mission statement and vision statement have the power to make me feel like I belong in that space, have power to make me feel comfortable referring my family and friends to that space with the hope that they will receive top-tier services. They have the power to help me make a sound decision regarding investing my resources of time, energy, and money in that space. If those tightly woven words don't make me feel like I belong like my family and friends will be treated well, and/or like my resources will be utilized appropriately, no matter how nice the building is, the staff is, or the prices are, I know all that I need to know. That company is not for me. 

Mission and vision statements in education are powerful declarations. They are manifestos articulating the core values and goals of an institution. They serve as dream boards, envisioning a brighter, more equitable future. They are paths to hope and ambition, guiding schools toward lofty (but attainable) aspirations. However, not all mission and vision statements are created with positive impact or equality in mind. While some vow to be beacons of light for all students, many function as compasses only for a select few. Some don't even care enough to make a genuine effort at inclusivity and clarity.

One example is "To be the best school in the universe." First of all…the whole universe? Really? This vision statement, though ambitious, is excessive, vague, unrealistic, and hyperbolic. Friends, the gaslighting, and the grandiosity are real. The next mission statement example saw the previous one and said, "When they go low, we go lower." Check it out: "We aim to teach students a lot of stuff." Hmmm…okay…See, I have no doubt that this school will be teaching students a lot of stuff, but what type of stuff will they be teaching them a lot of? I may not want my child learning how to air fry a concoction of spaghetti squash and cherry-smelling Play-Doh as a creative culinary chemistry lesson. The indigestion, like these statements, won't be cute. This statement is going to go viral for all of the wrong reasons. It is simplistic, ineffective, and lacks detail. 

Let's bring it home and make it personal. It's easy to see how the above statements need some TLC. However, what about the ones that we proudly boast on our T-shirts, put on our PD slides, add to our awards and certificates, and share on district/school marketing materials? How much tough love and criticism should we give to our own mission and vision statements? 

Quick question: How many of us are proud of our school's/district's mission and vision statements…in theory? All of us can probably raise our hands, right? Now, if I were to replace the word "theory" with "reality," how many of us would still have our hands up? If you still have your hand up, in the words of Rihanna, "SOS, please someone help me…". Come to the front of the room and share with the community how your workplace implements this greatness tier. No, really, help us all be great. Send that email and share it with us.

Education is an art. We do not, however, want the art of making empty promises to be our niche. Are we slogan-driven and trying to create a fan base for the gram, or do we have data-supported mission and vision statements that can be systematically implemented and that offer a transparent and unified approach to standing on the business of meeting the needs of all students? Let's take a deeper look.

How many of us have a mission and/or vision statement that says something along the lines of "We believe every child can learn" or "We ensure that all students will have the ability to read, write, think critically, and communicate responsibly" or "We are preparing students to live, lead, create, and compete in an evolving world" or "If you can dream it, we will help you achieve it"? Those are all nicely written mission and vision statements. However, I have a few questions:

  1. Who is "we"? Are you saying that every single constituent, from the Governing Board to the Community Partners, believes this, ensures this and helps make this a reality for every child? How do you know that? How can you assure that?
  2. Whose definition of "ability," "evolving," and "achieve" are we using as a standard of measurement?
  3. What if my dream is not socially responsible, possible, or acceptable? Will you still help me achieve it? How will you ever find out what my dream(s) is/are if you don't see me or talk to me regularly? Again, who is this "we" that keeps showing up and making all of these claims? 

We want bold statements. We want durable statements. We want timeless statements. We know what we want. We are fully aware that we must design well-crafted statements for the world to know and trust that we are competent and trustworthy. How do we get there? How do we clearly communicate a school's commitment to providing high-quality education to all students? 

Reflect on this mission statement, "We are dedicated to nurturing the unique potential of every student by fostering a love of learning, powering personal growth, and encouraging students to make a meaningful commitment to community service." While this statement may not be overflowing with descriptive language, it effectively sets a tone of inclusivity and high expectations, promising a supportive and enriching educational experience for all. If you felt a sense of warmth and inspiration when reading it, that's the mark of a well-crafted guiding statement. If it didn't quite resonate with you, that's okay. Consider what elements you might add or subtract to make it feel more authentic and achievable.

If you are thinking that you need to revisit your mission and vision statements, here are some points to consider:

  • Don't give the illusion of direction. Create a statement that truly provides direction and purpose. Help caregivers, students, and the community at large understand how and why the school/district is moving towards achievable and measurable outcomes. Don't include it in the statements if it can't be done for all students. 
  • Do not be a repository for educational buzzwords. "21st-century skills", "global citizenship," "innovative learning environments," and "rigor" are not magical words that ward off criticism. These words may show that the school/district is on the cutting edge of educational trends, but they don't embed a feeling of safety and belonging. If we know anything, in education, we know that many of our stakeholders are not asking questions, and they definitely are not asking the right questions. They will not call you and say, "Hey, School Leader, I was reading your mission statement and saw the word "rigor." What exactly is that?" Friends, using a calculator is still the highest form of innovation to some of our stakeholders. Do not assume they know what an "innovative learning environment" is. They likely don't. If they do, they aren't thinking about it in the way that you are. If you are going to use those words in your mission and/or vision statements, be a resource for understanding and be willing to provide concrete examples of how these things are being implemented. 
  • Stop using mission and vision statements as bureaucratic shields to deflect criticism of declining test scores, negative media coverage, or any form of administrative incompetence. When there are challenges, mission and vision statements can be used to remind stakeholders of the core values and goals that drive the school's/district's efforts. Don't silence dissent. Wrap the mission and vision statements around constructive dialogue and a culture of continuous improvement. The bow doesn't have to be pretty. The bow just has to exist to bind commitment to transparency. 
  • It is okay if the mission and vision statements from decades ago no longer serve the school community. Release them. Design new and life-affirming mission and vision statements. Work with constituents to create statements that can be a catalyst for positive change and a tool for rallying the entire school community around a shared purpose.

Mission and vision statements are far more than mere words on marketing materials. These statements are essential to any educator and educational institution committed to excellence and growth. These statements are a mini masterclass in public relations, a sanctuary for partnership and belonging, and a monument to competence and care. When clearly articulated, these statements display the school's/district's commitment to inclusivity, high expectations, and societal evolution. My call-to-action is that you take a serious look at your site's/district's mission and vision statements and:

  1. Check if the statements represent the needs of every student (outer work).
  2. Ask yourself if you can wholeheartedly contribute to the requests within the statements (inner work).
  3. Consider rewriting statements that no longer positively serve the educational experience for every student (together work).

Do the hard work to get to the heart work.

Written By: Sholanda Smith, Content Creator Leading Equity Center


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