I can’t imagine the crew of a magnificent sailing ship leaving the harbor without a plan. Surely, they don’t set out to simply wander, to live minute by minute. With confidence in their skills to take on whatever comes their way, they set out with a destination firmly in mind. Come what may, they are on a mission, they have a vision.
A sailing ship is an intriguing metaphor as we consider schools. Like ships, schools exist to fulfill a purpose. There shouldn’t be anything accidental about how they operate, anything coincidental about what they hope to accomplish. Educators, too, embrace their task with confidence. High quality schools, and exceptional school districts, are guided by the shared understanding of a carefully articulated vision.
Early in my administrative experience, I had the opportunity to receive some sage advice. In conversation with Bill Dickenson, the long-serving principal of the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Cincinnati, Ohio, I asked how he approached decision making with confidence. Without missing a beat, his response was reasoned and clear. Paraphrasing here, his answer went something like this. “Approach every decision through the lens of the school’s vision statement. Everything you consider must support the attainment of that vision or, at a minimum, must compliment it. If you cannot easily make the connection between what you’re contemplating and that vision, you are headed in the wrong direction. It also may be that the guiding vision is out of date or is interfering with the overall mission of the school. If that’s the case, there is other work to be done to revise, or rewrite, the vision statement. You can only be effective if you take great care to make certain that your direction and the vision are consistently aligned.”
I carried that wisdom with me for the entirety of my administrative experience: twenty-one years to be exact. I had the opportunity to use Mr. Dickenson’s advice on more occasions than I can count. I recall a specific situation that involved a mandated change in the application and admission process of our district magnet school. The stipulated changes really rattled my staff. It was a procedural shift that brought into question, in the minds of many, the purpose of our school. In this case, the decision was made externally and there was no room for negotiation. Rather than feel victimized by this new procedure, we took a pro-active stance as a staff and carefully examined, and then rewrote, our vision statement. The document we came up with was a beautifully written and accurate description of who we were and what we were all about. It was a cathartic exercise. It allowed us to embrace the coming change with clarity and confidence.
Ships and schools. Both will be buffeted by storms, some meteorological, others political. The occupants of both will need to be able to think on their feet and will benefit from adaptive leadership. Detours are inevitable. Neither will enjoy their journey in a straight line. Creativity, flexibility, collaboration, and trust will guide both through the uncertainties of the adventure.
Both will go aground if they lose sight of their vision.
I’m not certain about sailing ships, as that’s not my experience. But I know, for sure, that schools and school systems are facing unprecedented challenges. In an environment where “normal” can resemble a battlefield of competing interests, priorities, attitudes, and opinions, the past two years have made that previous “normal” appear to be uncomplicated. The current situation is saturated with numerous vital interests and questions.
· If we concur that in-person instruction is preferable to a digital alternative, at what cost do we make the return to on-site schooling?
· What is the safest environment for children?
· Is there a benefit to utilizing the digital technology within in-person instruction in a way that is balanced and highlights the advantages of both platforms?
· What non-instructional damage is levied by remote learning: meal security, supervision of children, health care, isolation, emotional and mental well-being etc.?
· Where do the concerns of adults enter the equation? Teacher unions are advocating for the safety of their members. Where’s the balance?
· What are the true, or perceived, impacts on families if instruction returns to being home-based, remote teaching, even temporarily?
· As the pandemic inflicts its impact on staff vacancies, how are schools expected to operate effectively and with a degree of efficacy in the absence of qualified personnel?
· What does a “new normal” look like?
The list is exhaustive. The answers are as varied as the perspectives presented. These issues deserve attention and intervention, even though identifying the correct response may be challenging. The reaction to each of these distractions must be tailored to the unique circumstances of schools and school systems. I honor and respect the professional/ethical/moral dilemmas that these circumstances present. But . . .
As each of these are considered, is the imperative of the over-arching vision being considered and applied? Is the guiding vision of the enterprise present in the deliberation of these distractions?
I use the term “distraction” intentionally. It’s too easy to run around addressing temporary brush fires at the exclusion of the central focus of what we are attempting and expected to accomplish: at the expense of honoring the vision. My fear is that within the pressure climate of the current circumstances, the distractions are overshadowing the focus on the prize, as defined by the vision statement. Even worse, I fear that while trying to do what’s best from moment to moment, systems will fall into a pattern of schizophrenic responses, where addressing the distraction supplants the vision.
Please pause to ask, “during this chaos, where are we in achieving our aspiration?” We cannot afford to lose track, or diminish the focus, on our shared vision.
You can only be effective if you take great care to make certain that your direction and the vision are consistently aligned.
I hope this piece serves as an opportunity for reflection; reflection that governs action.
Again, thanks, Bill.