Five Lessons For Defining Your School's Mission

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Virtually every independent school has a mission. Can you recite yours by heart?

Do you hear your mission used in faculty or board meetings, as a way to frame discussions or to ensure you’re making the right decision?

I’ve found this practice is inconsistent. But there’s tremendous clarifying power in articulating your school’s “true north.”

Watershed faced this challenge four years ago. The school’s reason to exist was strongly felt by its constituents, who were drawn by a clear sense of purpose. It also had an innovative program that differentiated us locally and nationally.

But despite the passion everyone felt for the school, its purpose wasn’t framed in one clear and widely shared statement. People had a strongly felt sense of the school’s “true north,” but we didn’t share a language that could be used to make decisions.

In 2014, we entered the process of (re)defining our mission. Here’s what we learned through this experience:

Lesson 1. Define the purpose of a mission at the outset

There are many ways to frame the purpose of a mission, especially when you consider framing it alongside a school’s vision and values.

We set out three markers for a successful mission:

  1. It would state our unique reason to exist - not describing our program, or a future state we wanted to achieve, but rather the work we sought to advance in our mission.

  2. It would be differentiating, capturing why another school was needed in our area. It wouldn’t recapitulate what we shared with the other great schools in our market. As Patti Crane famously put it, it would create a “category of one.”

  3. Finally, it would be crisp: in the language we used with our board, it should be no longer than a tweet (140 characters at that time.)

Too many mission statements, however, resemble Christmas trees: one big frame with a little bit of everything hung on it. After all, who’s opposed to leadership, academic excellence, or global citizenship?

The result of consensus-driven wordsmithing, however, is a mission that doesn’t speak to your community, or represent your community to the broader world. At the outset, we made clear that we were going to avoid that fate.

With the invaluable help of Carla Silver and Leadership+Design, who led the one day Board retreat that kicked off this process, we collected examples of truly differentiating missions. Hawken School, for example, has adopted a crisp, aspirational framework that outlines its “Purpose, Promise, & Principles.”  Nike's "Just Do It" was also shared - as a model of brevity.

Lesson 2. Collect the stories your community tells about itself

At Watershed, we started this process by collecting stories: from students, faculty, and the board. Our board toured the school and “played anthropologist,” sketching moments, capturing snippets of dialogue, and paying attention to what they saw.

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We continued this process by pulling together the entire student body in one of our community meetings. We collected ideas via an all-school gallery walk, with provocative questions posted on 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?

The same process took place with our educators in an after-school community meeting.

We didn’t start this process by inviting feedback on a draft sentence. We were collecting our mythology: the stories that our community tells to explain itself to the community and to others. Some of the evocative moments that surfaced included:

  • “Talking with youth in San Francisco about what life is like as a 1st generation immigrant from China.”

  • “My students waking with frost on their sleeping bags after a fast night of sleeping out under the stars.”

  • “Building water filters after researching global water access to figure out the best and most affordable way to clean contaminated water.”

These stories helped us identify the emotional core of our purpose.

Lesson 3. Look for themes that speak to your most aspirational selves

We gathered these stories into buckets, trying to identify themes.

We were searching for what was core - what repeated in our narratives, what resonated with our community, and what differentiated us from other schools (i.e. “what makes us special”).Watershed proudly sends 100% of its graduates to colleges and universities, but the same is true of virtually every independent school in our market.

Having sorted these stories into buckets, we also consulted the school’s founding documents. Where do we see the ideas that still animate our school? One of our founder’s design principles, for instance, was “adventure and wonder.” The phrase had fallen out of common use, but it perfectly captured the spirit of those stories we collected at the beginning. That phrase would kick off our early drafts.

Lesson 4. Check for resonance, not for new ideas

This process led to a shorter, crisper prototype of a mission statement that we shared for feedback. We wanted to check with the community to ensure it truly resonated - but we also wanted to resist the urge to add every noble virtue to the sentence.

At a community meeting, students unpacked the proposed mission and explained what they thought it meant to them. By sharing how they saw it represented, we were able to understand where the juice was - and also what might be cut out.

They also delivered clear feedback: they felt like community was critical to our identity, and while I resisted the request to make the statement longer, we included that concept.

We shared it with teachers, who refined some of the language. The “courage to take on the world’s greatest challenges” didn’t resonate with them, especially as it might imply that the challenge was something to be feared. Instead, they asked us to pair “character and ability,” which they saw as dual threads running through our program. That pairing allowed us to reference the school’s pre-existing 7 character traits, and then later led us to identify six “abilities” for a Watershed graduate.

Having checked for resonance with those constituencies, we formulated three possible mission statements. Because we wanted parent feedback - but also understood the danger of re-opening the entire process at this juncture - we asked parents to select one preferred formulation, and then to share their response in an “I like,” “I wish,” “What if” format. The resulting feedback affirmed that the core ideas spoke to our parent community, found the strongest frame, and identified a few spots where we could tighten up the language.

The mission statement that we created in this process was a bit longer than I would have liked, but it spoke authentically to the school’s unique reason to exist.

Our final mission statement: 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.

It landed at 153 characters: just over a 140-character tweet. And our community saw itself in those words.

Lesson 5. You have your new mission - use it!

Today, our new mission statement hangs in every classroom at Watershed. That consistent, public messaging means that everyone knows our mission - and increases the expectation that leaders use it.

We also used our mission to define the profile of a "best fit" student at Watershed. Breaking the mission into three clauses, we outlined a set of bullet points that define whether a student should or shouldn't come to our school. We actively use it in our marketing and our admissions process to ensure that we're attracting families who'll be well served by our mission.

Finally, you know you’ve managed this process well when the faculty and board are looking at the mission when you’re having a conversation - and using it to disagree, frame new questions, and move the school forward.

Many thanks to the brilliant Carla Silver of Leadership+Design whose willingness to work with our board at the start of the process, as well as to jump on the phone and be a sounding board throughout everything that came next, was invaluable in the success of our work.

Greg Bamford