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Mission statements

3 min read


Mission statements hardly ever inspire. They should. They can. But most don’t. Have you ever noticed the similarity from school to school, of the same jargon, vagaries, and stale language? If there was a proctor for school mission statements, most would be accused of plagiarism.

Mission statements too often speak in the soothing, humorless, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us- language of the market. Not of educators. Mission statements are often sterile. Not merely for the quality of words but the paucity of verve and originality and ideas. Orwell, when speaking of political language, describes a similar quality, “as an accumulation of stale phrases that chokes like tea leaves blocking a sink.”

The sound of mission statements is more often than not, without a human voice but the artificial speak of the dog and pony show. They don’t speak in human voices but the homogenized language of the sales pitch. Mission statements take themselves too seriously by speaking in language that is distant, uninviting and abstract.

To speak with a human voice, schools have to share the concerns of their communities. But first, they must belong to a community. When is the last time you spoke to a teacher who knows their mission statement? Who can show evidence of how it infuses the life of a school? Better yet, a student who can cite the mission of her school? Not often. Hardly ever.

If the purpose and the guiding principles of a school are couched in platitudes, is it unusual that schools run the risk of becoming irrelevant? Mission statements should be like haiku: lean, transparent without adjectives or excess. They should enliven, anchor, legitimize and affirm what a school believes in.

More importantly, it is the process that should be refined. They offer the opportunity for all the stakeholders to articulate what matters in a school. Otherwise, like statues, they get taken for granted and lose their significance. Once, when in an accreditation year we went from class to class, challenging students to examine the mission, word by word, and gave them butcher block paper and colored markers to illustrate what it meant to them. We did the same with all 240 teachers.

The closer you come to owning a mission the more likely it will guide and unify a community. We already have enough cookie cutter versions. It’s time we rediscover the artistry of the mission statement before it goes the way of the mimeograph machine and the VCR, stockpiled in closets that no one has access to.

David Penberg is an urban and international educational leader. Most recently he headed Stevens Cooperative School as an interim, and prior to that he was head of school at the Benjamin Franklin International School in Barcelona and head of studies at the American School Foundation in Mexico City.