Mission impossible?

A teacher recently told me that she had voluntarily returned to the same inner-city middle school she had left, after teaching several years in a suburban school. When I inquired about why she would return to an ostensibly more difficult assignment, she quickly responded, "It was a very nice school, but teaching there was a job; in this school, it is a mission, and that is what I need and like."

Not surprisingly, when I observed her classroom, her students' learning seemed to be mission-driven, with meaning, value and purpose for them. Reflecting upon her statement and how it manifested itself in her classroom, I thought: All great learning doesn't happen in a vacuum or by chance, it is fueled by a mission; it is a gift given to students by their teachers, an invitation to join them.

Put a few teachers together with a sense of mission, making it a collective mission, and the norms of the school can change for the better. A commitment to continuous improvement becomes contagious. It is just "how we do things here." This type of professional culture seeks out the tools its needs to solve its problems and to improve the quality of instruction and the classroom environment. This sense of mission, the moral purpose of education, is the fuel that drives and sustains the process of improvement. 

Compare this to the typical change process of someone in authority telling staff they need to improve and giving them a program to implement. It is not coincidental that schools with a top down "you need to change" approach tend to have teachers who replicate it with their students. Schools like this get stuck because they are mission-less. Learning becomes just a job for everyone involved.

Wise school leaders, therefore, invest in preparing for the first staff meeting of the school year as an opportunity to talk about their common purpose as educators. They avoid having the laundry list of things to do becoming the focus of the time they spend together. Some school leaders might be hesitant to appear impractical or, dare forbid, be "touchy feely," but it is worth the risk.

There is a very good chance that many staff are waiting for someone to re-kindle the mission they had at the start of their career. For some staff their sense of mission is only a little dormant, but for others, it might be in a deep sleep. Regardless of where staff are on this continuum, devoting some time to talk about it is always better than never talking about it.

Here are some conversation starters to use at the first staff meeting:

Our school is a place where ___________________.  This sentence stem can help staff articulate the school's culture and climate: a challenging but essential task. Culture and climate are invisible, like the air we breathe, especially to those who live and work in it. Letting colleagues share their perceptions of culture and climate is a good start to putting words to what people sense.

Are we a group or a community? What's the difference? Being together in the same place and time even for years and years is no guarantee of being a community. Some staff members can feel like they are a community but that sense doesn't extend collectively to students and parents. Thinking and reflecting upon the defining attributes of a community is a good way of becoming one or strengthening it.

Do all staff members care for each student? If the answer is "yes" then do all students know that? Caring for each and every person in a group is a defining characteristic of community. Most staff would have trouble admitting they don't care for every student, but the second question helps people think about how that care is communicated and perceived. If people fall into bad habits of not respecting students, these questions can help them reflect upon how they treat students.

What are the guiding principles for how we treat each other? The default way of thinking about regulating behavior in schools focuses on rules, limits and consequences. Remove them and chaos is inevitable in the minds of many educators.  In reality, most people govern their behavior by internal values and their sense of right and wrong. Simply following or not following external rules sets the bar low for moral behavior. When a school can articulate the values and reasons for their rules, all members have a greater opportunity to understand their responsibilities toward each other. Well-articulated guiding principles help people make moral decisions in situations not covered by rules.

A great person is a sentence. What is yours? There is a great video by Daniel Pink called, "Two questions that can change your life." It asks people to pretend to look back on their career and ask them to summarize it into one sentence. The second question asks them to think of one thing to do tomorrow to make it better than today. People are motivated by aspirational goals that have concrete and specific actions tied to them.

What can we do as a staff to articulate our collective mission? Mission statements can be viewed as clichés from the 90s that still hang on school walls or appear on stationary. At the very least, a school leader can create some positive cognitive dissonance (getting people to think even when they don't want to) by asking a staff to re-create their own personal and/or collective mission. Giving staff input on creating the process for articulating a mission, increases their ownership of the product of this process.

Ironically the greatest obstacle to making learning more meaningful and purposeful in a school environment is when people think that it's an impossible mission. For educators with a sense of mission, however, nothing is impossible!

Jim Dillon has been an educator for over 40 years, including 20 years as a school administrator. He is an educational consultant for Measurement Incorporated, who sponsor the Center for Leadership and Bullying Prevention. He is the author of Peaceful School Bus (Hazelden). No Place for Bullying (Corwin, 2012) and Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities (Corwin) and the picture book, Okay Kevin (Jessica Kingsley Publishing).

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