Getting to the Point in School Mission Statements

Spring 2020

By Greg Bamford

In his poem “The Way It Is,” William Stafford evokes the metaphor of a thread running through one’s life. “You have to explain about the thread,” he writes. “[I]t is hard for others to see. / While you hold it you can’t get lost.”

I’ve learned to share this poem with boards when we begin the process of examining a school’s mission. Like the thread in Stafford’s poem, missions can be hard for others to see and need to be explained. But defining mission pays dividends: When a board holds it, they can’t get lost.

Our schools are filled with caring and dedicated educators, and they’re stewarded by committed trustees. And the missions we inherit are usually the outcome of careful processes. Yet mission statements often become long lists of everything a school aspires to be. These lists make it hard for our schools to stand out in increasingly competitive markets, and they make it hard for board members to fulfill their strategic and generative duties. You’ve seen these missions: they’re either generic or too long—or both—because once a beloved community member offers a suggestion, who’s willing to say that “excellence” or “global citizenship” isn’t worthy of inclusion?

In contrast, a crisp, distinctive mission that evokes the core of a school makes it easier for every board member to remember: What does our mission call us to do? When we do this work well, boards rally and get energized. The school clarifies its powerful, pithy reason to exist. And boards begin having better conversations.

I’ve guided this work at my previous two schools. At Charles Wright Academy (WA), where I was hired in 2018 as associate head of school for strategy and innovation, I had a mandate to help the board revisit and revise the school’s mission. When we asked key constituencies to recite the mission, no one could remember it without prompting. As a well-rounded, comprehensive school serving 15 grades, we run the risk of being “all things to all people.” A sharper mission would help us define what’s core.

The challenge was familiar. When I became head at Watershed School (CO) in 2014, it was a genuinely unique school that struggled to articulate its innovative heart crisply. The result was an unclear identity in the community. So Watershed started the same process of examining, and ultimately rewriting, our mission statement.

This critical work of defining and clarifying a school mission was intense, challenging, and rewarding. These are the lessons I learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Define success at the outset.

Too many mission statements resemble Christmas trees: one big frame with a little bit of everything hung on it—leadership, academic excellence, global citizenship, and so on. To avoid this fate, heads and boards must set their intention.

At Watershed, I shared three criteria for what would constitute our success. At the end of our process, a successful mission would
  • state our unique reason to exist—not describe our program or a future state we wanted to achieve, but rather the work we sought to advance in our mission;
  • be differentiating, capturing why another school was needed in our area, rather than restating what we shared with other great schools in our market; and 
  • be crisp—no longer than a tweet (140 characters at the time, 280 today).

At Charles Wright, we shared Seth Godin’s language around “tribes”—and the desire to find a group of people who shared our core beliefs, even while others may say that we’re not the right school for them. This counterintuitive truth—that great organizations aren’t for everyone—set us on a different track from the beginning.

Lesson 2: Collect the stories and language already present in your community.

One common mistake many boards make in doing mission work is to start drafting language right away. This invites wordsmithing too quickly, and it can be hard for board members to generate fresh language without new input.

Start by collecting the stories that the school community uses to explain itself to others. Watershed was small enough to pull together the entire student body in one of our community meetings. We held a “gallery walk” in a space large enough to include our high school student body, and we posted several provocative questions on flip-chart pages that lined the walls:
  • How do you describe Watershed to a friend?
  • What “snapshots” from your time here are unique to Watershed?
  • If Watershed closed and all the students found new schools and all the teachers found new jobs, what would be lost in the world?

Sharpies were handed out and music kept the mood up as students moved throughout the room, jotting down their responses. The next week, we repeated the process with teachers at a faculty meeting.

By taking the time to do this, we were rewarded with detailed, sensory, and emotional stories. One snapshot of life at Watershed, for example, was “waking with frost on sleeping bags after a night of sleeping out under the stars.” This type of input helped Watershed’s board identify the texture and emotion—the spirit of “adventure and wonder,” to use the language that ended up leading our new mission—at the core of the school.

This type of story-gathering doesn’t need to happen in person. Given the larger scale and broad geographic dispersion of families at Charles Wright, we gained similar insights with an e-mailed, all-parent survey that included several questions designed to evoke how they saw our identity. One respondent, reflecting on our question about what she wanted for her child’s future, said she wanted them “to navigate the future with confidence.”

That phrase struck us immediately, as it summed up so much of what we heard from other respondents—as well as our school’s emerging commitment to preparing students for an era of rapid change. As a result, that anonymous parent contribution made it into the final mission statement nearly verbatim. 

Lesson 3: Provoke new thinking before writing a draft. 

While your mission should celebrate what is, a mission should also be aspirational. By keeping the school’s mission one step ahead of reality, a board can challenge itself to continued improvement.

A good process can help trustees get there. Board members typically come from outside the world of education, and their emotional connection might be to the school’s past. For that reason, it can be helpful—and immensely satisfying—for board members to have an opportunity to wrestle with new ideas in education. Whether through TED Talks or guided readings, a mission-development process is the perfect opportunity for generative thinking.

One way to start is for board members to tour the school as if they were anthropologists, not longtime stakeholders. Journals in hand, they can sketch interactions, capture snippets of dialogue, and jot down impressions. This can feel unfamiliar for board members, even uncomfortable: After all, the typical board meeting might revolve around spreadsheets.

We used “Shadow a Student” project resources to do this at both Watershed and Charles Wright. It took some friendly encouragement to get board members to sketch what they saw, and having a staff member as a guide helped both groups navigate beyond the most familiar spaces. But board members leaned into this new behavior, returning with a fresh perspective on a place they had known for years, if not decades.

At Charles Wright, we conceived of our mission review as a journey through the school’s past, present, and future—a journey that began in the fall with a salon dinner including our second head of school, and ended in the spring with another salon dinner about the future of education. In that second dinner, we invited local professors and entrepreneurs, as well as local independent school thinkers from The Downtown School: A Lakeside School (WA) and Global Online Academy. Board members sat side by side with our guests and shared the themes we had uncovered along the way. The conversation evolved to encompass the emerging economy, what it takes to succeed after graduation, and how education itself was changing.

Over the course of the evening, our board gained a new frame for the ways in which many elements of the Charles Wright experience, though common to other independent schools, would gain increasing relevance in the century ahead. Thinking about the challenges of the future generated deep excitement about these core ideas that the board could use aspirationally and could lead to distinctive programs.

Lesson 4: Let everyone crack an egg.

There’s an apocryphal story about the development of brownie mix in which the first version needed only water. People didn’t like that—they wanted to add something substantive so they could feel like they were cooking. Today, brownie mix instructions ask us to add an egg. The lesson is true for the mission process: Let people participate meaningfully without asking them to start entirely from scratch.

At Charles Wright, we borrowed from the popular Mad Libs activity to create a series of “Mission Mad Libs.” We used these to encourage board members to experiment with linking the core ideas we uncovered in different, hopefully generative ways. Borrowing from the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers, one such Mad Lib read as follows:

“Because of our belief in _______ (“why”), Charles Wright Academy _______ (does outcome) by _______ (differentiator).”

Our task force rapidly generated several possible mission statements, allowing everyone to mold the product. We then collectively identified the freshest, most resonant language and used it to write a more focused set of drafts. By the time we were finished, everyone felt the final product was “theirs.”

Lesson 5: Check for resonance.

It’s important to make sure the board’s thinking resonates with the school community. To do this in a way that avoids adding every noble virtue, hold off on writing a first draft of a mission statement until late in the process.

With the board’s permission, I drafted the first potential mission statement as head of school at Watershed. After the board weighed in, we shared it with Watershed educators. One phrase that called for the “courage to take on the world’s greatest challenges” didn’t resonate with the leadership team, who thought it implied that the world was something to be feared. They suggested we replace “courage” with “character and ability.” That pairing allowed us to reference the school’s preexisting seven character traits, and later prompted us to identify six “abilities” in our Portrait of a Graduate.

We checked for resonance with students as well. In a second community meeting, students read the proposed mission and explained what they thought it meant. This process provoked clear feedback: Community was critical to the students’ sense of Watershed, and so they lobbied us to include it. I initially resisted the request—I really wanted to keep the mission as short as possible—but they were right. The word “community” was added, and the story about why is one we started to tell with pride.

At Charles Wright, a school with 15 grades and more than 600 students, the process was necessarily different. We circulated our draft mission among the board and senior leadership for review and feedback. And although the review process was more closely held, we compensated for it by broadening our task force beyond trustees. Faculty representatives worked alongside board members throughout the process, deepening our conversations about education.

In our review process, we learned that some people missed specific words from the old mission—“humor,” for example, was particularly well-loved. But we also heard that those well-loved words weren’t necessarily the school’s reason to exist. (I assured everyone we would still do our best on humor.) Instead, our academic leaders were more energized by the emerging focus on “active, joyful learning,” a pedagogical commitment that has since galvanized our conversations about teaching and learning.

One way to get feedback without getting saddled in wordsmithing is to formulate three possible mission statements that express a common set of ideas. At Watershed, we shared these possibilities in an e-mail, asking parents to select one preferred formulation. We invited them to explain their choice using the design-thinking-rooted “I like, I wish, what if” method. The resulting feedback avoided wordsmithing but helped us understand where parents were excited, and why. It also helped us identify what phrases fell flat, pointing out where we could tighten up the language.

Mission at Work

Today, a new mission statement hangs in every classroom at both schools. These consistent, public messages reflect that everyone knows and understands the mission and can use it to frame questions, disagree constructively, and make decisions for the good of the school.

The right process and a good outcome provide clarity about the threads that may have seemed “invisible.” By creating shared language, it’s easier for your community to hold onto the things that matter. Education, society, and families are changing; your school will need to change, too. But by investing the board’s time in discovering the school’s mission, trustees will have something to hold onto along the way. Once they find it, they can’t get lost. 


Putting Your Mission to Work

Creating a school’s mission is only part of the process. Once it’s public, it’s important to find ways to put it to work immediately.

At Watershed School (CO), the mission is: “To spark adventure and wonder, foster inquiry and community, and build the character and ability of students to take on the world’s greatest challenges.”

Soon after its completion, we used it to help us define a mission-servable student. Breaking the statement into three clauses, we outlined a set of criteria for “best fit” students. The criteria under “adventure and wonder,” for example, includes the expectation that applicants are ready for overnight trips away from home. These criteria are posted on the admission section of the website to ensure that applicants will be well served by Watershed’s mission.

At Charles Wright Academy (WA), the mission is: “To inspire active, joyful learning while nurturing and challenging students to develop the character, creativity, and skills to successfully navigate the future with confidence.”

Immediately after announcing our mission, we organized our Opening Meetings around its structure. With one day thematically dedicated to each part of the mission, we had time to explore it together and build a common understanding of what it meant. For example, the second day teachers returned to campus was focused on “active, joyful learning.” Our choir teacher kicked off the day by leading an all-faculty sing-along, which led to the director of early childhood learning sharing a TED-style talk on the value of play in learning. After a faculty “unconference” that allowed faculty members to share active teaching techniques with each other—the unconference is a self-directed format we learned from the EdCamp movement—we held “employee recess” at lunch. Pingpong, ultimate frisbee, and a teacher-designed escape room set the tone for a year of active, joyful learning.
Greg Bamford

Greg Bamford is associate head of school for strategy and innovation at Charles Wright Academy in Tacoma, Washington. Bamford is also co-founder of Leadership+Design and the Traverse Conference, and is a trustee at his alma mater, The Overlake School in Redmond, Washington.