How Purpose Can Inform Strategy Design

Fall 2023

By Allison Gaines Pell

This article appeared as "A Call to Answer" in the Fall 2023 issue of Independent School.

In the fall of 2016, shortly after my appointment to become the head of the Wheeler School, I received a gift in the mail from the chair of the search committee: the biography of Wheeler’s founder, Mary Colman Wheeler, written by her niece. I learned that Miss Wheeler, as she was known, was an unmarried woman who built her own house when unwed women owning property was hardly heard of, a woman who chose a career in education over accepting a marriage proposal, and an artist who started a painting school for girls in her own studio. This studio would eventually evolve into The Wheeler School. She believed her students should have access to the highest levels of education and sent them to nearby Brown University for coursework. She was known for running into a classroom to share something she’d painted or a tidbit she’d read; by all accounts, she had high expectations and a firm hand. She believed that school could be a place of possibility for everyone. 

A contemporary of John Dewey, Miss Wheeler also believed that a great education should be grounded in relationships, and she often conducted vibrant discussions about learning and life with students around her fireplace. The biography depicted many such moments, but one in particular stopped me in my tracks: One evening by the fireplace, she told an assembled group of students that her goal was for each one to “learn [her] powers and be answerable for their use.” I knew this statement not only captured a commitment that I could feel palpably, but it was also a vision both born of the school and resonant with the kind of purpose-driven education in the 21st century that I hoped I could promote during my tenure. Her words would become Wheeler’s mission statement.

Wheeler’s embrace of purpose and ideas was precisely what attracted me. Wheeler is and has been a school where passionate and talented faculty and staff are not only skilled at their craft but also energetically devoted to constant innovation and keeping students at the center of their work. The school was already known for many deeply embedded programs reflecting this type of culture. Its Hamilton School is a school-within-a-school for students with language-based learning differences. Sixth graders spend a full quarter at Wheeler’s Farm campus as part of its farm program. And the Aerie enrichment program connects students with community members based on students’ interests. I could tell that it would take just a nudge for this community to fully open the floodgates and for new ideas to flow. 

And so it was. In my first year, when I started asking questions about the school, it seemed as though every faculty and staff member had a note in their pocket filled with ideas to share and improvements to try. The energetic force of our professional community and our founder’s powerful sense of purpose formed the path to build the school’s first strategic plan, a project I would begin in my earliest days in partnership with the board of trustees. 

A Purpose-Led Strategic Process

Similar to the inquiry process we promote in classrooms, our strategic process was organized into four phases:

Identifying the questions. I started on July 1, 2017, with several empty notebooks that would be filled with many notes from dozens of conversations with trustees, school leaders, faculty, staff, parents, and students. I invited each person or group to first share the story of their experience at Wheeler, followed by key questions that could help shape a discussion about the future: What do you cherish about Wheeler that should never change? What should we address or change in the coming years? What leadership advice do you have for me? My goal was to identify themes and organize what I heard into a set of “how might we … ” questions. 

Along with Miss Wheeler’s foundational precept, I found other inspiring and grounding quotes and statements from a deep dive into the school’s history. Mary Helena Dey, Miss Wheeler’s immediate successor, often spoke of the importance of true engagement with the world and was inspired by the idea of the love of process over product. When I shared these quotes during my first year, faculty, staff, students, and alumni immediately recognized in them their Wheeler experience and the ethos of the school. It seemed fitting for these sage insights to become the organizing principles for the many pages of feedback I had collected; they also inspired three present-day questions to frame the next phases of our work:
  • “To learn our powers and be answerable for their use,” Mary C. Wheeler 
How might we leverage Wheeler’s strengths to design the Wheeler experience for the next generation?
  • “A real world within the world and a part of the world,” Mary Helena Dey 
How might we engage the local and global community as a resource for learning, engagement, and impact? 
  • “To set the cause above renown; to love the game beyond the prize,” poet Henry Newbolt, often quoted by Mary Helena Dey
How might we organize for a culture of growth and learning to ensure stability, dynamism, and innovation into the near and distant future?

Inflection point. Together with Greenwich Leadership Partners (GLP), our trusted consultative partner and sounding board throughout the strategic process, we designed a daylong visioning and working retreat with the full board, leadership team, and a representative group of faculty and staff from across all areas of the school. This session was intended to inform the full group about the state of education and the independent school landscape, and then to give them time to consider and respond to the many reflections we had collected from the school’s faculty, staff, parents, and students that fall. The data we shared and the exercises GLP facilitated resulted in visionary and uninhibited conversations, which then informed our next round of conversations with our full community and the next phase of the design process. 

Generate, test, assess, and align. Following this retreat, we engaged community members from all corners of the Wheeler community, including current and former students, parents, key donors, trustees, and of course, faculty and staff. We brought them the first round of questions, which now included new ideas from our retreat, and asked them what resonated, what might be too much or too little. We captured the thoughts, questions, concerns, and ideas that surfaced. 

As we went along, conversations transformed into action: Passionate teachers came forward with ideas for pilots and professional development opportunities. A nursery teacher wanted to spend more time with students at the Wheeler Farm. A middle school teacher wanted to build a partnership with community organizations toward a more “permeable classroom” and yearlong inquiry projects. An upper school teacher was inspired by the NuVu Innovation School (MA) and wanted to learn more. An environmental science teacher joined with others across the school to form a farm working group. Momentum started to build. A committee of faculty and staff began to flesh out these ideas with concrete plans and even newer questions. Through working groups, the faculty and staff members could iterate, discuss, and test ideas. Along the way, our ideas became sharper, the vocabulary more aligned. Our ideas came into sharper focus.

Refine, finalize, share, and implement. For good design to work, it needs to be in the hands and on the minds of those working most closely with students. Our faculty and staff committee used several meetings over the course of the spring to “chunk” the ideas and projects that were emerging into groups. We also reexamined our many conversations and the feedback data to establish and hone a “promise” statement that would define our beliefs about teaching and learning at Wheeler across all divisions. At our final faculty and staff meeting in June 2018, we previewed the work planned for the year ahead and invited all faculty and staff members to consider how they wanted to contribute and continue to grow the school. I asked everyone to participate, acknowledged that it would be messy and would require some comfort with ambiguity, emphasized the necessity of dissenting voices, and gave directions for sharing the work as it progressed. Over the following months, ideas narrowed and took shape. We shared the strategic design with the full community in November 2018 and continued to bring ideas to life over the course of the year. 

Progress and Lessons

In the five years since, we have launched several new programs, worked toward alignment of the promise to our teaching and learning initiatives and professional development, increased enrollment beyond expectations, and established multiple avenues for pursuit of our public purpose. Our trustees have seen the fruits of the many long and at times circuitous conversations on strategic financial planning, and our faculty and staff are engaged in the ongoing evolution of practices that are aligned with what learners need now. It has been both new and a continuation of what Wheeler has always been about, grounded in an origin story that we named but that already was within us. As we have managed the many unknowable challenges over the past several years, our plan was never on a shelf; in fact, we found guidance to address some of our greatest dilemmas during unprecedented times because of principles that reached back to the school’s founding. 

Best of all, by allowing Miss Wheeler’s original precept to surface, we became more fully ourselves. During this process, a trustee proposed that because Miss Wheeler’s words—to learn our powers and be answerable for their use—resonated with so many community members, it might be the precept upon which we could anchor our mission. It reflects the key pillars of the mission that had served up until this point, which included key tenets of individuality, commonality, awareness, and opportunity. The trustees agreed to bring this proposal to the faculty and staff working groups, which discussed it along with other initiatives, and adopted that phrase as the school's mission. It’s been a guide for virtually every decision we’ve made since.

It was not an easy process, but delving into our founder’s original purpose was emboldening. Evolution and change at schools are emotional, and at times, destabilizing; having Miss Wheeler’s words as a centering purpose helped us stay focused, say yes, draw new insights, and importantly, set aside things that weren't aligned with our purpose. We also learned some lessons that we’re carrying forward:

Origin stories are powerful. Miss Wheeler was an inspiration, and her founding ideas were powerful. Bringing her story to life and connecting it to our values as a school with spirit, energy, and a revolutionary founder, brought pride and a sense of identity. Reminding our faculty and staff that we did not want to be like everyone else but rather more like ourselves was a strong rudder in our process, and inspiring and grounding for me as the school’s head. 

(Over)communicate and orient frequently. From the outset, clearly communicating process, roles, and timelines for idea development was critical. Reorienting everyone using a central timeline helped us remember that there is a deliberate process. This was especially crucial during the pandemic and after George Floyd’s killing, when decisive action was needed. We were able to turn to our strategic design and find direction and context for our decision-making. At moments that might have felt solely reactive, we were able to remind our community that these commitments had roots in our strategy, our values, and in our founding vision. At the same time, our communication was too infrequent at times, which led to a lull in action or a feeling of aimlessness often characteristic of the messiness of implementation. More communication seems to be the rule.

The best ideas are already with you—they are with your faculty and staff. Michelangelo is said to have believed that his statue was always hidden in the marble, and that the artist’s job is to clear away the marble around the work of art. I think the same is true for us in our schools. Our best ideas and the most successful initiatives were already present or ready to expand with the help of faculty and staff. By igniting an educator embedded in the culture and history of the school and following our students’ lead, these—and more—initiatives took root: the early childhood program at our second campus, a newly refined (and still-in-progress) schedule that allows for more time for focus, our city-focused inquiry projects and satellite campus, our global education programs, our future efforts to extend environmental study at the farm, the extended and free programming within our Hamilton School for students with learning differences, and the expansion of our Aerie program. Setbacks occurred most often in areas where we acted with good intention but without an enthusiastic and invested faculty member to lead and champion the way. When we look to our educators, we find the transformative experiences for our students that make our schools better. 

Adaptive leadership is key. During periods of change, a leader’s job is to provide the container to hold both excitement and enthusiasm as well as the anxiety and worry that naturally follows. All will be present. Sometimes, those same people who expressed nothing but excitement will end up wringing their hands or presenting obstacles. If leadership is, as Ron Heifetz posits in my favorite leadership tome, Leadership without Easy Answers, “mobilizing a group toward a common purpose,” the leader needs to ensure that the community does not take on more than it can handle and also that it does not take on less. Confronted with an unknowable future (made more evident by the past few years), a leader’s job is to remain steady, to calm the waters, and also, at times, to provoke. Paying attention to the arc of change—taking breaks and slowing down when necessary to rebuild strength for a larger push or just to continue apace—is essential. There were times that the pace may have been too fast, and unintended consequences became evident.

Push past comfort. In my first remarks to the school community in 2017, I ended with a story I’d heard on a podcast. As one marathoner “hit the wall” around mile 21, a fellow runner came up beside her and said, “the blessing is outside the comfort zone.” Indeed. Organizing and leading a strategic design process that includes the full community requires patience, vulnerability, persistence, and a very strong team. It requires people around you who can listen when you need support, who can hold up a mirror, and who can tap in when you need it. It is difficult to manage the many emotions that come with reaching toward our goals. As with those last few miles of a marathon, the true blessings often come beyond our areas of comfort. 

We all have our personal and professional reasons for choosing this path of school leadership, whether because of powerful relationships with kids, a passion for teaching and curriculum design, the belief that education is the most powerful agent of change, all of the above, or more. We also have all experienced these recent years as some of our most challenging. Independent schools have a unique opportunity to draw a line in the sand about the purpose of education as independent institutions, uniquely capable of asserting and modeling bold ideas around community, empathy, and the power of human connection in a world increasingly dominated by technology and uncertainty. By returning to our purpose, as schools and as individuals, I hope we can rise above the fray to remember who we are and what we are here to do.
How can our origin story lead us through the future?
Allison Gaines Pell

Allison Gaines Pell is head of school at The Wheeler School in Providence, Rhode Island.