Sometimes we are so caught up in the busy fray of the day-to-day that we miss out on the opportunity to step back and look at the bigger picture. Where is your school headed? How does the direction fit with your dream or the dreams of your staff, your students, your families?
Schools have been inundated with so many mandates that often educators spend an enormous amount of time ensuring that students and teachers are simply on track for improved academic performance. Even when we are confident that we’ve addressed the basics—checking on attendance, reducing disruptive behaviors, and fixing leaks in the infrastructure, we are left with little time to consider some of the what ifs—what ifs such as:
- What if we make all our goals and targets? Where will we be?
- What if students meet academic requirements? What are the implications for their lives and their futures?
- What if students are meeting all behavioral expectations, following the rules and regulations? What will be the impact on their learning, their lives, and their futures?
- What if Plan A and Plan B, don’t work? What will we do then?
- What if staff morale is bad? What if staff are stressed out and feeling unempowered or that they have lost their sense of purpose?
- What if we overlook elements that will prepare us for the future? Then what?
When we pursue a linear path, following dictates from others, sometimes we miss out on opportunities to move beyond ordinary to the extraordinary, missing out on opportunities to achieve more, to reach higher targets, or to make a greater contribution.
What are the Dreams of Your Staff?
Even when we are making progress, life without dreams may be very linear and feel very two-dimensional. Without dreams, we may be going through the motions, even when we advance, without fulfilling some deeper longing to make a difference. Dreams give us hope. Hope gives us purpose.
As much as meeting all of our goals might be cause for celebration, it might be good to take a step back. What’s next? What do we need to do to arrive? Here are a few questions for starters
- How did your goals originate? Are they only yours? Does your system collectively believe in their power? Do they reflect the dreams of your staff, your students, your families?
- What are the dreams of your staff, your students, your families?
- When was the last time you had some discussions about these dreams?
- What is your hope for your work moving forward? What needs to happen to turn these dreams into goals and plans?
For school leaders and teams in the midst of goal setting, much of their energy today is absorbed in strengthening academic performance, determining grade levels and subjects that are priorities, and meeting targets for reducing disruptive behaviors—including reducing suspensions and expulsions. In the past few decades there has been a tendency to look at the data and develop goals for a school improvement plan, eager to move the status of a school from “low performing” to “academically proficient.”
Flipping the Process – Dreams and Visions First
To morph your dreams into visions and then into reality, you may want to step back and consider a bit of dreaming, perhaps inviting staff, families, and students, to share their dreams, and as they elaborate, collectively create a vision for their school. We think of it this way—dreams shape our lives and the lives of those around us. They can enhance our creativity and problem solving. We can build on our dreams, our passions, to create visions, which formalize our aspirations for our schools. Working to create a shared understanding of these aspirations has the power to create a synergetic movement forward.
Visioning Together in Schools
Schools have opportunities to create school spirit and a sense of purpose by engaging their staff and constituents in visioning exercises. Administrators can ignite this process by gathering a small team together to informally discuss their ideas for the “what’s next” for their school communities. We prefer to begin with a “no holds barred” type of vision... perhaps a small core learning team informally talking about what they long for for their students and their schools. Here are some ideas:
- After some initial discussions, create a shared google document and invite the group to contribute what they heard and took away from the discussion.
- Add some visual examples or story boards.
- Empower participants to upload video, photos, or provide web–based examples of the next steps.
- Make the selection democratic by having town halls, debates, and voting for the final vision.
- Celebrate the vision and communicate it to all members of the school community.
Visions have greater potential when we can imagine some concrete specifics—it is almost as If we picture in our mind’s eye what could be. We actually see that ideal school that we are becoming, even in that first moment that we collectively crafted our vision. As we see it, building on the work of Kotter (1995) and also the Pickett Institutes (2002), visioning could provide a place for educators to connect to consider the ideal, the practical, the inclusive, and to be practical, empathetic, flexible and bold.
(Visioning Onward, p. 77)
Your Vision is the Lens Through Which You See the World
Some might say that we believe before we see, or even that we see what we believe. Certainly, our beliefs provide a lens that helps us focus on how we lead, what we say, and how we explain what we see. Our beliefs provide a lens through which we can interpret what happens.
Principal professional learning leader Dr. Debbie McFalone tells us to “be a builder, not a barrier.” To be a leader who inspires others to commit to a shared vision rather than compliance to a plan. As McFalone states, “Uncommon leaders have a sense of urgency about their legacy; they realize they must actively pursue a path that allows them to transfer their values into action” (p.7). We believe this transformational leadership starts with a path of collective visioning.
Sharing your vision and sharing the visioning process as you grow support and commitment from others can be challenging, but oh, so rewarding. Don’t hold back. You will be surprised how rich your community’s resources are if you just ask. Families may not have money or time to donate, but they may have valuable relationships with companies, non-profit organizations, and faith communities that can support your vision in many different ways.
Individual Contributions to Collective Visioning
At Upper Providence Elementary in Royersford, Pennsylvania, Missie Patschke started the school year by talking about the power of focusing on “one word” as a driving force for each individual to set their path through the school year, “Each individual word contributes to a sea of phrases and ideas that contribute to the strength of our whole community. Those 75+ words are our dreams, our hopes, and our vision. The power behind the collective motivates each of us to know more and do better!”
Next, teachers and staff explored the story of their teams, their students, their classrooms, and their careers. Missie asked the school staff to take time to, “explore how these individual stories collectively are meshed to create “OUR” story as a school. The systemic history that we’ve created together has inspired our future path. With our story before us, we next evaluated what we believe about culture and relationships.” Finally, the work at Royersford Elementary came full circle as they looked at their vision to improve, grow and change. They discovered a collective need to sustain and celebrate all that they do “right.” Each individual was charged by the full group to be mindful of how they contribute to these elements in every relational opportunity taken, or missed.
Acting on Our Visions
Visioning may take a while. It may be a process involving key leaders, staff, families, students, and communities. It may involve a process that takes place over a period of months as we dialogue, discuss, and debate. However, we also have our individual dreams. These may be long-held, or they may emerge distinctly on the basis of something we see or hear. There is a lot that we can learn to slow down enough to listen and then choose to act with intention based on the visions we have.
In 2016, Paul Liabenow stood in a Starbucks waiting for a double expresso and eyed the daily New York Times on the news stand. He noticed an article about genocide in Myanmar: Buddhists attempting to exterminate Muslims in the country, including women and children. At that point he had a premonition, an urging to do something about this atrocity. Paul called a friend and business partner in Rockford and explained the need, urging him to help build an orphanage and/or shelter in Myanmar to save these families from certain persecution, if not death. Tim, retired from the CIA and having been stationed at the embassy in Myanmar years ago, had connections. Paul and Tim met a Myanmarese couple when they visited family in the United States. They shared their vision to build an orphanage in Yangon to rescue children and asked if the couple would run it.
Paul just believed. Three months later, he received an email and a phone call from Myanmar. The couple, Sui Baur and her husband, agreed because of one question, “Are you going to let those babies, those children you are serving food and great learning to four days a week go back to the store front or dumpster to sleep for the night without shelter or more food?” Sui Baur said, “I just could not leave them alone. So here we are. 16 kids; 15 more coming. And next summer a new school will be under construction.”
We tell you this story because we know how much each of you care for the students and families you serve. We know that you are courageous, but may be hesitant to follow a dream for fear of the unknown, or an uncertain outcome. When you have an idea, an urging to do something big, greater than ever before, just go for it. Your dream becomes the vision that may make your story finish with a remarkable ending. Go for it. Just go for it.
So, we encourage you to cast a vision and pursue a better you and a better future for your school and district. Consider what you can to do to go beyond ordinary to extraordinary, to go beyond compliance to making a difference for each student and family at your school. Lead as if your lives and the lives of your students and families depend on all of you – your collective visions, hopes, dreams, and actions — because they do!
Read more about visioning, including examples from corporations and school districts in our book Visioning Onward: A Guide for All Schools.
Kotter, J. P. (1995, May). Leading change: Why transformation efforts fail. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/1995/05/ leading‑change‑why‑transformation‑efforts‑fail‑2
Mason, C., Liabenow, P., & Patschke, M. (2020). Visioning onward: A guide for all schools. Corwin Press.
McFalone, D. (2018). Uncommon leadership. Rowman & Littlefield.
The Pickett Institute. (2002). The power of visioning in strategic planning. Institute for Law and Justice. Retrieved from http://ilj.org/publications/ docs/Power_of_Vision_in_ Strategic_Planning.pdf