What is the purpose of mission statements for school districts? How do you begin to write a mission statement for a school district? Is it one of those corporate type hoops to jump through that keep pushy board members happy, or can it serve a real purpose?
Mission statements for school districts, when developed correctly, are tremendous tools that can help guide school districts through the murky waters that often surround them and the decisions that school leaders must make. Outlined below are some of the benefits and a few best practices for those who may be attempting to write mission statements for school districts.
Benefits of Mission Statements for School Districts
- Clarity: All young infantry leaders in the Marines are required to attend Infantry Squad Leaders’ Course (ISLC). One of the most important skills taught at ISLC is decision-making skills. Decision making skills in young leaders are essential due to the nature of combat. Young leaders are given opportunities to plan and execute training missions and are given ample time to prepare for the missions they plan. Instructors at ISLC drill the mantra, “Never fall in love with your plan” into the heads of young leaders because actual combat is fluid and dynamic. Perfectly laid plans are often derailed minutes into a mission. To help keep young leaders focused on the overall mission, they are explicitly provided the “commander’s intent.”
The commander’s intent is a simple statement from the commander (often a high ranking officer) on the overall objective of the mission. An example of a commander’s intent statement might be, “Our primary objective is to disable the communications capabilities of the our adversary located at grid coordinates 345 678.”
The commander’s intent is so important in decision making because when the mission begins and the “stuff” hits the fan, resources and avenues that existed when the mission was planned and would have allowed Marines to accomplish the task may no longer be available. When all tactical decisions are based on a top down approach, the seeds for inertia are sown. However, through commander’s intent, young leaders do not sit around and wait for orders, rather they are empowered to remain focused on the overall objective of the mission and find alternative methods to accomplish the mission.
A district’s mission statement is the commander’s intent that can guide staff and board members through times of uncertainty in decision making. It can help board members work through an old impasse with clarity on the overall purpose of the district.
- Continuity: Let’s face it, district leadership changes frequently. Sometimes changes in leadership are amicable and other times leaders separate under less than desirable terms. Regardless of why or how leaders move on, the students in the school district are still the most important factor to consider. A clear mission statement helps provide continuity from one leader to the next during times of transition. More information about this will be provided below, but a mission statement should not be developed by one person, it should be developed in collaboration with students, teachers, administrators, and community members and should survive transitions in leadership. In fact, it should be the filter in which new school district leaders and teachers are ran through. When school districts have a clearly defined and easily understood mission it becomes far easier to identify staff members who will help the district achieve its goals.
- Credibility: Public school districts receive a portion of their revenue from state and federal funding. For most districts though, the largest share of their revenue comes from local tax revenue. People move to communities for two main reasons: jobs and schools. If people are moving to an area because of schools, they are choosing to invest their lives and tax dollars in that community and that type of commitment requires credibility. Additionally, when schools require funding for large projects, such as new schools or sports facilities, they must turn to voters and ask them to pass tax levy or bond issues to raise capital. “Yes” votes require credibility in the eyes of the voters. If patrons of the community see credibility in the purpose and actions of the district, they will be more likely to support the district both at the ballot box and with their wallet.
Now that you know some of the benefits of creating a mission statement for school districts, take a closer look at some best practices for actually creating one.
Best Practices for Creating School District Mission Statements
Form a Mission Statement Committee: I know, another committee. School districts and churches find some kind of cruel pleasure in the forming and meeting of committees. There are times though that committees are necessary. School districts are comprised of many interested parties and each should have a voice in the process of creating the final product. School district leaders should invite representatives from the community, school board, staff members, and students. That may seem like a lot of people at the table, but keep in mind each has a unique view point in how they want the district to help serve the community they live in. As mentioned previously, districts should strive to ensure they create a mission statement that endures through changes in leadership and trends in education. If school districts hope to write an enduring and representative mission statement, they need to form a mission statement committee.
Ask the Right Questions: Once the committee is formed ask the right questions. Among the many questions that can guide your mission statement here are some important considerations
- Ask why the district exists. What service to you hope to provide for the students and the community.
- What are the school district’s defining characteristics?
- What makes your district stand out?
- What are your district’s concrete goals?
- What will members of the community value the most about the school district?
- What value does the school hope to add to the community, the country, and society at large?
- Why would others want to be a part of this district?
This is not an all inclusive list, but it is something to get you started. An inspirational and thought provoking TED Talk video that may help keep your committee focused on the point of a mission statement is one by Simon Sinek titled How Great Leaders Inspire Action.
Keep it Simple: The final step in creating a mission statement is focusing on simplicity. In product development companies often say simplicity is where you start, but in a mission statement simplicity is where you end. You take big ideas and distill them down to a few single sentence statements that are easily understood by all.
Mission statements need to cut through the clutter. Ideally mission statements for school districts should be 8-10 (preferably) single syllable words. You goal is to simplify your district’s mission for the community, not string together a bunch of fluff that includes multi-syllable education buzz words (hello rigor, relevance).
When your mission statement committee gets stuck and struggles to reach an agreement, use the 90-year-old grandma rule. If your 90-year-old grandma would not understand it, it may be time to rework the mission statement.
Your grandma wouldn’t understand a mission statement that claims to:
“Help each student come into confident possession of their innate talents, improve the skills needed for success in secondary school, and establish values that will allow them to act with thoughtfulness and humanity.“
Your grandma would know:
“Working together to provide students with superior learning opportunities and providing the community with well-prepared citizens of tomorrow.”
So are you simply dumbing down your mission statement?
Not exactly. Thirty years ago the average person saw 2000 images a day. Today people see closer to 6000 images per day due to the rise of handheld digital devices on most desktops and in our pockets. Add to that number the thousands of words you either hear or read each day and it is easy to see why people often tune out the world around them.
The human brain is composed of billions of neurons that are all searching for the shortest path to process information. Imagine millions of little bouncers waiting at the doors of these neurons ready to kick out anything overly complicated. Mission statements need to be able to get past the “bouncers” that help people process information. They need to resonate and stick, Effective mission statements are clear, concise, and meaningful.
Final Thoughts on How to Create a Mission Statement for School Districts
Clearly mission statements are more than a few trendy buzzwords that are hung on school building walls and displayed on the district’s homepage and then forgotten about. Well-written mission statements can guide the district through major decisions and onward towards the accomplishment of broader district goals. Re-evaluate your mission statement every five years to ensure it continues to align with the direction your community wants to go and what they need from the students in your schools.