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A Vision That Drives What We Do

What guides your institution? I've given this a great deal of thought lately. Leaving one institution for another provides a special lens through which to compare and analyze. I've found myself thinking about why - Why is policy in place? Why do we value that thing? Why do we show up every day?

To be clear, I am not saying "we did it better at my old school" or "my new institution is an improvement over my old one." Rather, having been part of a school culture and being faced with the task of navigating a new one has given me the opportunity to evaluate both.

This month I've been reading Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need by Chris Lehman and Zac Chase. I haven't made a great deal of progress with the reading, but the book has enabled me to do a great deal of thinking. One of the chapters is about vision. I read it last week, but have thought about the idea of vision on a fairly consistent basis in the days since.

Lehman and Chase make a compelling case for creating schools that are a "unified whole" where "vision drives what everyone does." We all agree, right? But the question I grappled with all week was What if this vision is faulty?

At both my old school and my new organization, a vision was visible (sorry, I couldn't resist). The driving force guiding actions was noticeable in the attitudes of the adults, the responses of the students, the internal and external discussions, the decisions made and the priorities valued. At times in both organizations, these were points of pride - things we do well or innovative practices.

However, there are always parts of a school culture that make us uncomfortable. Attitudes such as "we've always done it this way," "there is no way to make that work" or "we're so good at what we do we don't need to worry about improvement" have always been hard for me to swallow. In truth, these ideas are also part of the vision of a school - the hope that in the future we will look pretty much the same as we do today.

Here is where we need to clarify the language. Often we confuse words like practice, policy or mission with vision. While I believe these ideas must all be aligned and unified, they are not really the same thing. Our practices, policies and missions should indeed support the vision, but the vision itself is an aspiration. It is implied that we aren't quite there yet. We can see a vague shape, maybe, or have glimmers of hope for what can be, but we haven't reached it yet. Schools must also realize that practice and policy reflect the vision, so if the vision is stale, it will be obvious in the organizational structures.

The critical question becomes "How do we shape the vision?" Again, things get interesting here. Many people in the educational community will say that leaders shape vision and that is true to a certain extent. But the best leaders are those who can shape vision as a result of listening, paying attention and collaborating with the community. What is working? What is not? What are teachers and students excited about? What systems and structures do we need in place to maximize engagement and learning? What do we value too much or too little?

Making time for these discussions is imperative. Without it, institutions are doomed to focus on policy and practice that are disconnected from the vision, or worse, reflective of poor vision. Supporting innovation and risk taking is also essential. We can't envision the future of schools if we aren't willing to try new things.

Are we there yet? I'd like to think that some schools are. Certainly, some organizations are close to embracing a vision that drives all they do - one that is void of egos and agendas, but inspires every member of the institution to strive for something bigger. I've been fortunate to be close to this goal in both my new and previous organization and be able to arrive at work with a shared mindset of "how can we make what we do today matter tomorrow?" - and that is a really great feeling.

If you think about it, "the future" is a place at which we can never really arrive. It will always be elusive and unknowable and, as a result, a little bit scary. But vision is all about the future and vision is less elusive and more knowable. We may not know exactly how to get there, but schools must have a THERE to get. It must be a THERE that takes into account the fact that people and ideas matter. A THERE that embraces innovation and change. A THERE that is authentic and collaborative. A vision that drives all that we do.