Missions, Mantras, and Meaning

Fall 2009

By Peter Gow

A group of admission directors from struggling independent schools has gathered to hear words of wisdom from consultant Carolyn Wilson Koerschen. She randomly distributes strips of paper, each with one sentence from the mission statements of the attending schools, and asks each participant to correctly reconstruct his or her own school’s mission statement. Not one of them can do it.

And that, for many independent school leaders, is the problem with mission statements.

Assembled by committees from a parts kit of hoary clich├ęs and trendy buzzwords, many of today’s school mission statements are so general and so alike that they fail to differentiate themselves and the schools they represent, reducing even the most noble of aspirations to banalities. Speakers from psychologist Rob Evans to messaging guru Dan Heath can raise uneasy laughs by skewering the hollowness of the documents purported to be credos, even manifestos, for our schools.

Mission statements are nothing new. In 1620, the Pilgrim men gathered in the Mayflower’s cabin to affirm their purpose of planting a colony “for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country.” The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, written in 1787, may be history’s most often-memorized mission statement. America’s evangelical heritage — at first strictly spiritual, then secular, and most recently commercial — seems to have drawn us to credos and noble expressions of purpose. We have a long tradition of marveling at single-mindedness and idealism, whether that of the Blues Brothers on their chaotic “mission from God” or of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard traveling up the Mekong River to kill Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now — “I wanted a mission, and for my sins they gave me one.”

For several decades, “mission-driven” and “mission-appropriate” have been bywords in independent schools. No accreditation is complete without a (supposedly) deeply pondered and purposefully revised mission statement, against whose tenets and hopes the efficacy of a school’s programs and policies are judged and from which, at least in theory, the school develops its strategic directions and derives its spirit. 

Mission and Marketing

Rick Ackerly, head of Children’s Day School (California), points out that schools need both an enumeration of basic beliefs and “a way to define themselves uniquely in the marketplace.” Many schools do fill their mission statements with characteristics that they believe prospective families might be seeking. Terms like “excellence,” “college preparatory,” “success,” and “lifelong learning” show up with a frequency that suggests their perceived drawing power. Read a dozen or so statements filled with these words and phrases, however, and one’s eyes soon glaze over. Suddenly, photos of Georgian, Gothic, or Modern architecture seem better indicators of differences among schools than their stated missions. 

Commentator Jason Johnson draws a clear distinction between mission and marketing. “If we believe in our mission, we often want to share it with the world and use it as marketing text externally. In general, mission statements are a poor substitute for marketing text, and yet we want to stick them on the front page of the website. If your mission truly reflects a unique attribute, then use it for marketing, but otherwise use other, more flexible language that is more easily changed to meet market needs.” 

At the 2009 NAIS Annual Conference, innovation expert Guy Kawasaki and messaging guru Dan Heath both addressed the topic of mission statements and marketing, citing mission language so absurdly grandiose that it might have come from the “Dilbert Mission Statement Generator” (Kawasaki’s observation) or from Match.com (Heath’s). 

Both speakers stressed the power of ideas both for marketing and for driving schools toward substantive innovation. Kawasaki invokes the idea of the “three-word mantra,” a guiding idea that can both inform a school’s planning and provide it with a sparkling marketplace identity. Pushing schools to stick to their beliefs, he advises them to “not be afraid of polarizing people. Great products do polarize people,” attracting customers with compatible values and needs even if others are repelled.

Dan Heath spoke of “sticky messages” — potent expressions that drive and differentiate. Like Kawasaki’s three-word mantras, sticky ideas are “simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, and emotional, and they contain stories” that communicate a school’s value and uniqueness. Heath believes that key messages, even when embedded in mission statements, must evoke a deep emotional response. “Can you find provocative language on your school website?” he asked, “or is it all full of ‘mission speak’?” Of course, schools must also offer value and uniqueness; message without substance is pointless.

What school, however, is unsure of its own value, and what school lacks confidence in its own uniqueness? Under a decennial obligation to reconsider or reframe a mission statement, most schools do not seem to struggle in coming up with a paragraph or two that will satisfy the accreditors and, with a bit of luck, attract some new students. 

Kawasaki and Heath would say, “Struggle harder!” From a 21st-century perspective, we are told, value will come from new ideas, and parents will be looking for schools that can provide students with training in new skills and new ways of understanding the world; uniqueness will be expressed in innovative, exciting programs that provide this training. The sustainable mission statement for our time must be a spark plug for new ideas as well as a steady beacon. As Carolyn Wilson Koerschen told the mission-challenged admission group, “If you don’t know who you are and why you exist, you can’t attract students by tweaking your marketing.”

Pressures for Mission Conformity

There are many reasons for the skepticism of some independent school leaders about the value of mission statements as they exist today. Writes one school head, “During the past decade or two, I’ve worried about mounting pressure from accrediting bodies/associations to reduce our unique institutional identities to a three-to-four-sentence mission statement or paragraph. I understand the value of pithiness, but how do we possibly distinguish our schools — put forward any sense of unique attributes — in the space of a paragraph?” 

Rather than improving the breed by “letting a hundred flowers bloom,” the requirement that schools create unique mission statements, along with the popular wisdom that shorter is better, may have had the opposite effect: creating a myriad of safe, general, platitudinous mission statements that are as much self-congratulatory as self-reflective. To leave out what is deemed critical information (“We’re college preparatory.” “Our students work really hard.” “We are trying to be diverse.”) seems dangerous, no matter how self-evident the information may be, but to throw in too much is seen as worse. The result is that basic concepts are reduced to a handful of overused words, while expressions of meaningful difference are delicately avoided. (Who will say, “We accept and can work well with certain kinds of learning-disabled students within our mainstream college-preparatory program”??— even if the school knows that it does this extremely well.) At the secondary level, schools also eschew words that suggest anything less than a student experience of exhausting involvement — “rigor” is in, “nurture” is out; “service to the world” is in, “balance” is out. (“We’re tough, and we expect our kids to do everything superbly. No mollycoddling here!”) 

Some educators are concerned that a portion of this safe-and-sameness is an unintended byproduct of increasing collaborative professionalism among independent schools. The National Association of Independent Schools makes no bones about its commitment to specific ideals: constructivist teaching, diversity, global education, innovation, and environmental sustainability. This magazine and the association’s various professional development events have featured these concepts and showcased schools that practice them well, and many schools have followed suit. But a few school leaders feel an expectation to conform and to write these issues — which plainly have political dimensions as well as pedagogical ones — into their mission statements. Says one head regarding the perceived message that mission statements should include favored causes, “It threatens the sanctity of our independence.” 

At least a part of the problem seems to lie in the multiple purposes of mission statements, at least as construed by many schools. As a marketing tool, the mission statement must be fresh, crisp, punchy — polarizing but oxymoronically non-threatening: the three-word mantra as cute bumper sticker. As an expression of core beliefs, the mission statement must be clear, comprehensive, and courageous — a set of pillars that support the workings of the school down to the smallest detail. And as a justification for the school’s existence, it must be stirringly idealistic. 

Words and Deeds

In theory, at least, everything from a school’s strategic plans to its assessment practice and athletic philosophy should be neatly traceable back to clear and obvious imperatives in the language of its mission statement. 

In practice, of course, things are not so simple, even in schools that work hard to use their mission as a touchstone. Jake Giessman, head of Academy Hill School (Massachusetts) draws the distinction between “word people,” for whom minute semantic distinctions play out as acceptable or unacceptable practice, and those who are more intuitive about teaching and learning. Word people abound in schools, but many school leaders operate by instinct or intuition based on deep behavioral or ethical principles. Word people want their mission statements and everyone else’s understanding of them to be precise, while more intuitive educators are likely to be satisfied with mission statements that are “good enough,” with application made on a case-by-case basis. As Rick Ackerly points out, this can be a challenge, but it also actuates authentic human interaction. “We have to live in the tension between words and deeds; that’s the job,” he says. “You put out a set of words, and then the rulebook says that you’re supposed to bring everything back to the mission, and you argue about what the words mean. You plunge in and you find discrepancies — it’s an iterative, living process.” 

Toward a Working Model

The most functional solution may be a two-part model. The first half is what Kawasaki might call a mantra but what Ackerly refers to as a “banner to follow into battle.” Not so much a brand identity — although it could serve as this — but a concise statement of purpose, the “banner” is “about what binds the school together as an organism. You can write the typical mission statement more or less uniquely, but it doesn’t give you a banner.” Some schools make the school motto serve this function; the Phillips academies (Andover, Massachusetts, and Exeter, New Hampshire), for example, both cite their shared 1782 motto, Non Sibi — “not for oneself” — in their literature and their daily operations, while visitors to the Fenn School (Massachusetts) are impressed by the degree to which faculty and students refer to and can explain how the school’s motto, Sua Sponte — “on his own responsibility” — is used as a programmatic point of reference and spur to behavioral reflection in the grades four-through-nine boys’ school.

The second part is an enumeration of core values and beliefs. NEASC acknowledges in its accreditation application that some candidate schools “may wish to elaborate on their mission with a longer statement describing beliefs and goals about education, about students, about learning, about life itself.” It has turned out to be rather easier for many schools to articulate core values, perhaps because there are no artificial constraints on length. After all, as brief as the Preamble to the Constitution may be, the Bill of Rights consists of 10 numbered items.

In many schools, core values may truly function as the mission statement, and if applicability as a litmus test for the integrity of the school’s ongoing work is the goal, this may be no place to stint on words. Peter Greer, former head of Montclair Kimberly Academy (New Jersey), recalls being advised that the school’s 16-page mission document, titled “Our Common Purpose” — and the work of faculty, staff, administrators, students, parents, and alumni and approved by the school’s board — would have to be condensed into a one-paragraph mission statement for accreditation. “We refused. We were firm that ‘Our Common Purpose’ was our mission statement — so why would we want to shorten it?” 

Many schools have opted for a version of this model, offering up first a succinct statement of mission and an elaboration of values. However, many “succinct statements of mission” would fail either as mantras or banners. Schools that have opted for the “safe and same” species of mission statement are going to have to go back and do some real work over the next few years, unafraid of what they might have to leave out as they define their essence and decide which words go on the banner. It matters less whether the banner has brand power suitable for marketing; the language of the marketing mantra may or may not be mission language. 

In the end, words do not and cannot define an institution. Jake Giessman notes that “there is a gestalt understanding about the unique character of the school. And gestalt defies articulation. Mission statements aggregate truisms. A good school can absorb and reflect a host of truisms”; the more finely crafted the words, then, the more they may lose precise meaning. 

Giessman believes that “a school leader has to manage the gestalt more than the articulation,” holding a lens that focuses the school’s values on day-to-day issues. The power of a mission statement lies in its embodiment of what Luthern Williams, director of studies at Oakwood School (California), calls the “ideals teachers need to inspire them to do their daily work”?— the school’s gestalt, if you will. The challenge for every leader, and every educator, is to bring a school’s mission — no matter how elevated or hackneyed its language — to life and to give it everyday meaning not just for teachers but for all members of the school community. 
Peter Gow

Peter Gow is director of special programs at Beaver Country Day School (Massachusetts) and an author, blogger, and consultant on independent school professional, strategic, and cultural issues. His mother is a graduate of the late lamented Brownmoor School for Girls.