1703 North Beauregard St.
Alexandria, VA 22311-1714
Tel: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. eastern time, Monday through Friday
Local to the D.C. area: 1-703-578-9600
Toll-free from U.S. and Canada: 1-800-933-ASCD (2723)
All other countries: (International Access Code) + 1-703-578-9600
by Pam Robbins and Harvey Alvy
Table of Contents
It was her very first faculty meeting as a principal. Christine knew this first meeting with the staff would be a pivotal one. She decided she must share her vision in a way that would invite the staff to follow so that, as a consequence, daily life in the building would be guided by a shared vision that places serving students well at the heart of the school and every classroom. After welcoming staff members, Christine explained:
I have a vision that at this school we will create a culture of care. While this is currently my personal vision, I hope it becomes a vision every one of us will come to embrace. I believe that such a shared vision will become a beacon that guides our efforts to make a positive difference in every student's life at this school.
To understand what a culture of care would entail, I'd like us to begin thinking about a time in our own lives when we felt cared for, and I'd like us to share these experiences. I'll take a risk and begin. As a child, I spent a lot of time with my grandmother. She always spoke softly to me, listened carefully, made me laugh, and took time for me. She had raspberry bushes in her yard. Together, we plucked raspberries from the bushes and talked about what we would make with them. She allowed me to eat as many as I wished! To this day, raspberries remind me of what it feels like to be cared for.
Some staff members looked down, some squirmed in their chairs, others looked up and dabbed tears from their eyes, and still others looked around. Silence fell over the group. Christine's heart was pounding. She wondered if anyone would break the silence.
After what seemed like eternity, a senior member of the staff spoke up and shared her experience with care. Taking her lead, others described their memories.
In the days that followed the staff meeting, Christine began to find small, anonymous gifts in her mailbox—a basket of raspberries, raspberry soap, raspberry-scented candles. She thought, with a smile, “Perhaps creating a culture of care is beginning to emerge as a centerpiece of the schoolhouse.”
Two weeks later, it was kindergarten orientation. Traditionally, a bus went around the neighborhood, picked up parents and kindergartners, and brought them to school. Prior to this day, one parent contacted the school and spoke to the assistant principal about pick-up times. The assistant principal mistakenly indicated a time later than the actual pick up. Hence, on kindergarten orientation day the parent and child missed the bus, and the mother called the school. The assistant principal took her call and said, “Sorry, we're not a transportation service; you'll have to find another means of transportation.” The resourceful parent, angered by what had transpired, contacted the district superintendent. He heard the parent's story and responded empathetically, “Madam, I realize that you've probably looked forward to this day for five years. If you give me your address, I will personally drive you to the orientation.”
Unaware that any of this had transpired, Christine spotted the superintendent walking down the hall with parent and child in tow. Interpreting his presence as a special visit to orientation, she approached him and thanked him for coming to the school for this important occasion. He quietly took Christine aside and told her what had transpired, adding, “I have the car seat in my vehicle; call me when orientation is over, and I'll take them home.” Christine responded, “No, give me the car seat, and I'll personally take them home. I want to talk with the mother about what happened. This is not the way we are going to do business around here.”
After orientation, Christine invited the mother and child into her office for a chat. She asked the secretary to take her calls so that she could devote undivided attention to the mother and child. She spoke about her vision of a “culture of care” and expressed dismay that the mother's initial experience with the school didn't convey a caring act. She explained that developing a culture of care takes time and would require great commitment on the part of those who serve children at the school. “But,” she added, “I believe this vision will become a reality here.”
Christine concluded the conversation and walked the mother and child to her car. After everyone was buckled up in their seatbelts, she turned to the mother and said, “I hope you'll give us another chance.” The mother nodded and remarked, “I know new ways take time.”
The next morning Christine called the assistant principal into her office. Christine told her about the mother's experience on orientation day. And then, she simply asked the assistant, “Is this something that would happen in a culture of care?” The assistant principal looked down and said, “No,” and continued, “I need to write that mother a note of apology.”
Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines vision as “something seen otherwise than by ordinary sight; something beheld as in a dream.” A school vision is a descriptive statement of what the school will be like at a specified time in the future. In schools where all organizational members genuinely share a vision, the vision serves as a compass, lending direction to organizational members' behavior. When the vision is the principal's, but is not embraced by organizational members, individuals may go through the motions or act on shoulds rather than as a result of deep commitment. At the heart of any vision is a set of core values and beliefs. Principals new to a school sometimes experience a conflict between their own values, beliefs, and vision for the organization and the existing organizational values, beliefs, and vision. These existing beliefs and values are reflected in the culture of the organization or, as some people say, “the way we do things around here” (Peterson & Deal, 2002). These beliefs play out in individuals' patterns of behavior, mental maps, and unwritten rules or norms for behavior. Many new principals describe what it feels like to encounter a culture where values and beliefs do not align with theirs as “being out of alignment.” A high school principal shared an example wherein his personal vision was connected with making a difference—cognitively, affectively, socially, and physically—for every student. Student success was at the heart of his vision. He entered a school where patterns of behavior and unwritten rules protected seniority in the organization as a core value. Veteran teachers were assigned advanced placement classes and the best schedules, whereas newcomers were frequently assigned struggling students with learning challenges and less desirable schedules. He reflected, “I knew I had to work hard to remove this misalignment. I knew what I encountered was what I didn't want. But this situation made me aware that I had to come up with a detailed vision of what I wanted if I was to be successful. I had to make this picture so attractive that it would generate followers—so I wouldn't be the only one sharing this vision!”
The situation faced by this high school principal points to the notion that there are often multiple visions in an organization:
When these visions are out of alignment or not shared by all organizational members, individuals often perceive a lack of focus and the organization doesn't run smoothly. Prioritizing becomes difficult. Although visions serve to guide people and direct action, competition for attention often exists. For example, administrative newcomers in Louisville, Kentucky, put it this way, “It's hard to stay focused on your vision and take a broad view of things when immediate demands such as bursting pipes, a fight in the hallway, or a possible child abuse situation are facing you.” One administrative mentor, in response to this, asked the newcomers to imagine, when competing priorities like these arise, that they are wearing bifocal contact lenses. One lens is for close vision; and the other, designed for distance. The mentor explained,
It is the nature of the principalship that, at times, you have to go back and forth between your distance and close-up lenses, and, at other times, you try to use them simultaneously. For instance, how you work with students involved in the fight in the hallway (close-up lens) might become a lesson on the value of collaboration and successful conflict resolution (distance perspective). How you work with what may turn out to be a child abuse situation (close-up lens) may be an opportunity to demonstrate a concern for the child's physical, psychological, and emotional well-being, as well as an opportunity to build trust and become a significant positive adult connection and advocate (distance lens).
“Temptation is all around you,” one middle school principal remarked. “It may be part of my personal leadership vision that I protect valuable instructional time. Every minute counts. And then, a vision challenge emerges when a situation arises, and I find myself thinking that the simplest thing to do would be to use the intercom and interrupt classes! Having a vision for teaching and learning makes you stop and think: What is important? What is the best choice?”
Roland Barth defines leadership as “making happen what you believe in” (2001, p. 446). This is accomplished through symbolic and expressive leadership behaviors. From the symbolic perspective, a principal models and focuses individual attention on what is important. From the expressive side of leadership, principals talk with teachers, help to crystallize and communicate the rationale for a vision, and generate shared discussions about what is important in the school. This focus on the meaning of a school leads to the development of a mission statement grounded in the collective beliefs of the staff. The process creates a commitment to a common direction and generates energy to pursue it. But it begins with a personal leadership vision (see Figure 1.1).
Values and Beliefs
What do I deeply value?
What are my beliefs?
My vision—a desired future state—entails:
Getting clear about the answers to these questions will be reflected in how the principal interacts with others in the school and community, that is, setting priorities and making decisions. To develop a vision consistent with one's values and beliefs, a statement of an envisioned future state is then drafted (see Figure 1.1). Going through this process develops an “inner compass” within the school leader that will point the way on the leadership path. Leaders who develop a personal vision, communicate this vision to others, and act consistently with this vision are perceived with respect and integrity, two vital ingredients for trust.
While a personal leadership vision is essential for the leader, members of the staff are not involved in its development. Hence, a process is needed so that the staff can articulate a shared, core ideology and an “envisioned future” for the school. Although it would take less time to copy or borrow a vision from another organization, great benefits are derived from engaging with staff in a vision-building process. It generates ownership, commitment, and energy toward making the vision become reality (see Figure 1.2, p. 9). As Stephanie Hirsh, associate executive director of the National Staff Development Council, writes:
A school vision should be a descriptive statement of what the school will be like at a specified time in the future. It uses descriptive words or phrases and sometimes pictures to illustrate what one would expect to see, hear, and experience in the school at that time. It engages all stakeholders in answering such questions as:
What kind of school do we want for our children and staff?
What will students learn? How will they learn?
How will students benefit from attendance at our school?
How will their success be measured or demonstrated?
Of all the educational innovations and research, which strategies should we seek to employ in our school?
If parents had a choice, on what basis would they choose to send their children to our school? (Hirsh, 1996)
A shared vision considers
Another method of vision building involves a “Post-it strategy” (see Figure 1.3, pp. 10–11). This approach has been used successfully in schools throughout the United States, Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Asia.
In large schools, Steps 1 through 7 might be conducted within departments. Departments would then share their completed charts and eventually synthesize their work, cross-departmentally, into one charted vision statement on which all can agree.
Source: The Principal's Companion (2nd ed.), by P. Robbins and H. Alvy, 2003. Copyright 2003 by Corwin Press. Used by permission of the authors.
The vision derived from this process serves as a beacon, lighting the way for organizational members to collaborate on behalf of students.
Closely related to the vision statement is the mission for the school. As Hirsh says,
A mission statement is a succinct, powerful statement on how the school will achieve its vision. The mission answers:
What is our purpose?
What do we care most about?
What must we accomplish?
What are the cornerstones of our operations? (Hirsh, 1996)
A mission statement serves as a galvanizing force for staff, students, and community. Goals identify how the mission and vision will be achieved. Some schools summarize the vision and mission in a bumper sticker to keep them in the forefront of everyone's mind. Seeing the school you want is the first step in the journey to making the vision become reality.
If the vision is truly shared, it will be evident in both the climate (how a school “feels”) and the culture (how “business” is transacted) of the school.
Although it is essential that the vision of the school be a shared one among organizational members, it must also be one that is compatible with the principal's personal leadership vision. Take a moment to list or graphically depict the ways in which you communicate your personal leadership vision (e.g., writing newsletters, what you pay attention to in visiting classrooms, or prioritizing agenda items for meetings).
Please use this space to jot down notes that are important for your personal leadership journey. You may do this in a structured way—by responding to questions—or in an unstructured way. Use whatever approach works for you!
Copyright © 2004 by Pam Robbins,Harvey Alvy. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication—including the drawings, graphs, illustrations, or chapters, except for brief quotations in
critical reviews or articles—may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical,
including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from ASCD.
Subscribe to ASCD Express, our free e-mail newsletter, to have practical, actionable strategies and information delivered to your e-mail inbox twice a month.
ASCD respects intellectual property rights and adheres to the laws governing them. Learn more about our permissions policy and submit your request online.