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April 1, 2021

The Most Powerful Tool in a Principal's Arsenal

A school's vision statement shouldn't be pro forma. It should say what you're passionate about and what you commit to—for all students.

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Let's admit it. There is nothing sexy about a vision statement.

We've all been trained on how to write one. Every school has one. And yet, in spite of how important we've been told they are, the vision statements we were trained to write really don't empower us to have a significant impact on our schools. Which is a shame, because your vision statement is one of—if not the—most powerful tools in a principal's arsenal.

The vision statement for your school is the promise you and everyone at your school make to your students. It tells everyone what you are building together as a community and promises students and their families that if they entrust themselves to your school, this is the result they can expect.

The right vision gives you and your staff focus. It helps you determine what work you should be doing and what work you can ignore. It helps you determine whether or not you're making progress and how you should adjust if you are not. Without the right vision, it's easy to become distracted by every new mandate that comes your way. You become vulnerable to every new crisis, unmoored by every new challenge, and soon drift off course.

To be clear, the vision statement I'm talking about serves as the school's official vision statement, but it's written by you as the principal. It should be something about which you are deeply passionate, but it should also focus on what are the best outcomes for kids; it's not just about personal priorities. To create a powerful vision statement, you must take the time to express your deepest goal for 100 percent of your students—not in a collaboratively written document, but in your own words.

I realize this is a departure from the way schools' vision statements are typically written, but that's what makes this statement so powerful. When you subject your vision to a committee, you typically end up with a carefully crafted, multi-clause statement that, in trying to include everyone's personal desires, ideas, and even their gripes, ultimately means little. When you as the principal create a clear, powerful, and concise vision that articulates the ideal outcome for every student you serve, and then invite others to join you in the journey, you not only galvanize your staff, but they almost always embrace that vision and immediately get to work pursuing it. I've seen this happen time and again with the schools I support. From there, the leader can engage the staff in a discussion of why that vision is so important.

To create a vision that has this kind of impact, you must do three things: Build a vision about which you are truly passionate; build a vision that is specific; and lastly, build a vision that includes 100 percent of your students.

Passion First: Does Your Vision "Spark Joy?"

If you are not passionate about your vision statement, how can you expect others to embrace it and work hard to make it a reality?

I remember pressing this idea home to Latasha, a middle school principal in New York who came to one of our Builder's Lab workshops. Latasha was in her second year at the school, and her first had been difficult. She'd inherited a pretty toxic school culture, and when she arrived, as she put it, "The students were running the school—literally." In fact, her area superintendent was considering closing the school down.

By the end of her first year, Latasha had managed to restore a sense of order. Still, less than 30 percent of her students were scoring proficient or above in reading and math on the state ELA and math assessments. Staff morale was low.

When we first started working on her school's vision statement the summer before her second year, Latasha was understandably stressed. She wanted to develop a strong vision for her school, but she wasn't sure it would make a difference, and she struggled to see beyond the immediate challenges in front of her to what her school could become.

Her vision statement started out as, "Every student will reach their potential and be successful in high school and beyond."

But there was no excitement in her eyes, so I pushed back. "You must be excited by your vision or no one else will," I urged her. "What do you really want for your students?" At first, she stated the typical things we say when talking about our dreams for our students. She wanted them to be successful and prepared for college and beyond. Still, there was no spark. So I pushed harder. "Is that what really excites you—preparing students for college or jobs?" I asked. "I guess," she shrugged.

I suggested she sleep on it and we could work on her vision more the next day.

The next morning, she found me as soon as she entered the workshop room. "I found it!" she declared. "I have my vision."

I grinned. "Let's hear it."

"I want all of my students to meet or exceed the proficiency standards in reading and math."

While that may not sound exciting to you, for Latasha it was a game changer. Specifying what she felt she truly wanted for students helped her get past platitudes. As she put it:

My problem was, I couldn't see beyond the problems we are currently facing to come up with a vision that would work. I was afraid to say what I really wanted aloud. But, when I let myself dream for my students, I finally came up with a vision that truly excites me.

This step starts with getting some distance from your preconceived notions about what a vision statement should be and tapping into what you really want for your students. Then, once you find your passion and articulate that in your vision, give yourself permission to pursue that work in your school.

Specificity: Am I Allowed to Say That?

The second criteria of a strong vision is that it must be specific. Here's where I see principals struggling the most. We were trained to write vague, aspirational vision statements full of words like "potential" and "21st century skills" and "global society." While those words seem important, they become meaningless when it comes to the day-to-day work of schools.

Take Eva. When Eva first came to one of my monthly online vision workshops, she had what she thought was a pretty good vision. It read: "At Parkview Academy, students will receive a rigorous, world-class education that helps them become critical thinkers, intrinsically motivated problem solvers, and empathic leaders who make a positive impact on their community."

But when I asked her what she meant by "critical thinkers," "intrinsically motivated problem solvers" or "empathic leaders," Eva struggled to explain. And the more we talked, the more she realized that what she really wanted was for all her students to find their own voice and use their voice to make their worlds better.

"But I can't say that vision," she lamented.

"Why not?" I asked.

"Because you said it has to be specific, and I can't measure that."

The requirement of being measurable was keeping Eva from articulating her passion—but this needn't be the case. Yes, your vision has to be specific and measurable. But it does not have to be limited to only those things that can be measured by test scores, or hard data. It needn't rely only on conventionally prescribed data.

I asked Eva to describe to me what it would look like if a student had truly found his "voice." She talked of how she wanted students to feel that they had the power to change their worlds. Many of her students came from tough circumstances and didn't believe that they could ever escape them. They passively consumed their education instead of taking an active role as a co-creators of their learning. Eva wanted students to know that they could write their own life stories and not be victims of their circumstances—and she wanted their school to help that happen.

So we found an assessment tool that measured whether students had an internal or external locus of control. Just finding that one measure changed everything for Eva. After giving the initial assessment and finding that most students had an external locus of control, Eva guided her staff in re-evaluating the way they did everything. She began by sharing her vision with her staff, explaining why she chose that vision and how it would benefit their students. Then she engaged her staff in discussing how the vision would impact their work and students' outcomes. Finally, she shared the assessment with her teachers and led them in thinking through how using that assessment would eventually help them know whether or not they had reached that vision for students.

The school's teachers chose to shift to a personalized learning model that gave students more opportunities to co-create their learning experiences. They re-examined their discipline policy to give students more responsibility for managing their own behaviors and consequences. They shifted their master schedule to give students more time during the day to pursue their own goals. By fully articulating her vision and giving herself permission to embrace it, Eva found a way to build the school she'd always wanted to build, and to serve her students in a way that empowered them.

Your vision statement can do the same. When your vision is specific, it immediately begins to spark new ideas and drive your work. The more specific you are, the more your vision can show you where you need to focus your work and exactly what to do next to reach your goals.

The 100 Percent Rule

Don't Settle for Fewer Kids Failing

When I say that your vision statement should include 100 percent of your students, people start getting nervous. It's not that they don't buy into the fact that their vision should include all of their students. Philosophically, that makes sense. But practically, it's daunting—especially if you're struggling to make even small gains each year, as in Latasha's school, or your growth over time has plateaued.

So we settle for smaller visions. Or we compromise by creating vague visions that are difficult to measure so that we can feel good by setting high goals, but not be accountable for meeting them. As a result, we end up with vision statements that sound like this: "In two years, we will be at 65 percent proficiency in math and 75 percent proficiency in reading."

What these goals are really saying is that in two years, we'll only be failing 35 percent of our students in math and 25 percent of our students in reading. Can you really galvanize your entire community around a vision that looks to fail fewer students each year?

I remember the first time I introduced the 100-percent rule at the training intensive I host several times each year. The moment I challenged everyone to set a 100-percent vision, a veteran principal immediately objected: "There's no way that I can achieve that kind of vision for all of my students. We have so many kids with so many different problems. We're barely making it as it is."

I nodded, "You're right. You can't reach a 100 percent vision with the school you currently have. But ask yourself: What would your school have to look like in order for you to reach this vision?"

He paused. Everyone paused as they considered this question that gets to the heart of it: What would your school have to become in order to achieve your vision for every one of your students?

You see, when you set a vision that feels "achievable," you likely won't have to alter much in the way you serve your students to achieve it. Sure, you'll have to make a little tweak here, an adjustment there, but you won't have to radically transform your school. But when you set a 100-percent vision for your students, you can't just tweak your way to improvement. You have to reconsider everything. And when you reconsider everything, you find ways to serve students who have gone underserved in your school, ways to meet students' needs you weren't even aware of before.

Permission to Believe

In setting your 100-percent vision, think about the ideal outcome you want for all your students. Don't get mired in the details right now. Just allow yourself to dream. What do you want to see every student accomplish academically? What kind of people do you hope they become as a result of being in your school? Write that vision down. Don't worry about shaping it into a traditional vision statement. Just write your dreams for your students as clearly and concretely as possible.

Next, reread what you've written and ask yourself what resonates. What makes you passionate and inspired? Cross out anything that feels inauthentic.

Now here's the hard part. Once you have a clear vision about which you are passionate, one that includes all your students, you must give yourself permission to believe that vision is possible. You don't have to know yet how you'll achieve it; that can come later. Right now, you simply must want that outcome for every student in your school so much that you're willing to do whatever it takes to achieve it—and get others believing.

That's what Latasha did. The day after we worked on her vision, she shared it with her staff. She expected pushback, but because she was so passionate about her vision and so confident that it could happen, not a single teacher objected.

Aligning Actions to Vision

Next, align all your actions to your vision. You know what outcome you want for all your students, so ask yourself, why aren't all your students already experiencing that outcome? Consider everything, from curriculum and instruction, to school climate, to students' home lives, to school policies. Finally, ask yourself what your school will need to become if you are going to make your vision a reality for every student in your school. Then get to work aligning everything you do to your vision, ruthlessly cutting any practice or policy that doesn't support it.

Latasha's school team and staff, for instance, started working on the "every student" part of their vision. Each student was assigned an adult advocate, who made a point to connect with and understand every student on their roster; they committed to getting each student engaged in the work.

As the year progressed, they gained momentum. The adult advocates became more proactive, getting students support at the first sign of struggle instead of waiting for them to fail. And because they were intentional about regularly having nonacademic conversations with the students on their roster, they became attuned to students' social-emotional needs and could help students work through many of their personal challenges before those challenges derailed students' motivation and performance. By the end of the first quarter marking period, the number of student failures dropped significantly. The staff was excited by the progress they were making.

Keeping the Momentum—in a Pandemic

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 ravaged the city, and schools shut down. Latasha and her staff scrambled to make sure that students had the devices they needed to stay connected to the school and work out other logistics of remote learning. Initially, they thought they would only have to teach remotely for two weeks; soon they were informed that the lockdown would last much longer.

The staff felt unmoored. There was so much uncertainty around what the district was expecting of schools. They worried about their students and struggled with their own fears about the virus.

Latasha listened to their concerns—and then anchored herself in her vision. She asked her staff, "Has our vision changed in light of these new circumstances?" They were quiet for a moment and then one by one, they agreed, "Our vision hasn't changed."

"Well, then let's keep working on our vision."

And they did. Because they had started with the "all students" part of their vision, they already had strong relationships with students. They reached out to students, making sure they had what they needed to be successful, and checked in with them regularly to ensure they were attending virtual classes, keeping up with assignments, and navigating their home lives. As a result, the school regularly experienced 95 percent or higher attendance rates while other schools in the district were lucky to see 75 percent. They also began working on "proficient or above." While the state debated whether or not they would conduct tests in the spring, Latasha and her staff determined that they couldn't afford for students to lose ground. So, they looked at their state standards, identified the ones they believed were most critical for students based on the released state exams, and—through teacher teams meeting online—focused on helping students meet or exceed those standards. By the end of the year, every student showed impressive progress.

And it all started with the right vision.

Pursue Your Vision

So, take time right now to rethink your own vision statement for your school. Is it something about which you are truly passionate? Test it to see if it is clear and measurable, albeit by nontraditional measures. Make sure that your vision includes 100 percent of your students and align every practice and policy to your vision. If you do, you can stop settling for the school you have and start building the school you envision.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ If your school has a vision statement, does this statement reflect what you are passionate about making happen for your students? What are you personally committed to for your school that isn't explicitly in this statement?

➛ If you, as principal, were to create your vision statement for your school, what would it be? What actions might follow from this statement?

➛ In your view, why are school vision statements often vague or limited?

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