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The other day I enjoyed watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. As he walks into the LIFE building, where he is employed as a negative asset manager, we are introduced to a what serves as the motto for Life Magazine in this movie. It reads:

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of LIFE.” (click here to read original mission statement by Henry Luce, the founder of LIFE.)

This is not only the magazine’s motto in the movie, but serves as the motto for the story being told and eventually what drives the character from day dreams to living his dreams. It was a powerful message of self-fulfillment and discovery, but I was also intrigued by how the motto drove the story throughout and framed the events that unfolded. It propelled the magazine, its employees and ultimately Mitty to greatness. It reminded me of how important a schools mission statement can be and what role it should serve.

I have had the privilege of working in a few schools in my career as well as currently having a role in hundreds of Jewish day schools around the country through my work at the YU School Partnership. One thing that comes up often in my work is the type of planning that has gone into the various initiatives I am called into to support and the vision of the school that supports the initiative. More often than not there is no vision and when there is one, it is often not aligned with the initiatives. However, regardless of where the school is on the path to growth, it all begins with a mission and the obvious first step it to look at the mission already in place. So let me take a moment to rant.

If I read one more school mission statement that has the words “academic excellence” or “college preparatory” in it with little or no explanation of what that means I think I may choke myself with a big box of blooms taxonomy triangles (if those don’t actually exist let me trademark those babies right now). It often seems that many schools went to www.missionstatementtemplates.com and ordered the same one that happened to be on sale that day. It goes something like this:

“Our school is dedicated to academic excellence and building strong character as it prepares our students for higher education, lifelong learning and success in careers and life.”

Many Jewish schools throw in a couple of words like “Jewish values or halacha, giving back to the community” and, of course, the ever popular “rigorous balance between general and Judaic studies.”

This is not to say the above mission is bad. It says a lot of good things, but a school’s mission should truly speak to the uniqueness of the institution. It should never be cookie cutter because hopefully, like the mission, the school is not cookie cutter. Also, and most important, it must understood by all who read it, especially the staff and students it is meant to represent and inspire. It should not be a description of what the school is. It should be what the school does and what they hope everyone involved aspires to do. It should be an active mission. It should be alive.

Did you know that Harvard does not even have a formal mission statement? Why? I suspect because it is not needed, because the word HARVARD is a driver in and of itself. Does the name of your school evoke a sense of mission?

A mission does not need to say you strive for academic excellence. Why would you not? I suppose if you did not strive for that you would be unique and your mission should say we strive for mediocrity. When I read the words academic excellence in a mission statement I assume just that. It is hiding mediocrity in plain site. The same thing goes for the term college preparatory. To the detriment of society, most schools are only focused on college preparedness and limit preparing their students for life that includes much more than higher education, which today is a stepping stone at best. As Sir Ken Robinson argues our “modern” education system is an inherently flawed relic of the Industrial Revolution and he points out that “a degree used to be a passport to employment, now it’s a visa.” Sure, you can include that you want to prepare your students for college, which hopefully you do, but you must also prepare them for so much more.

Being a mission driven school simply means that you have defined what your goals are as a school and the decisions made fall within that framework. The problem is when you have a generic or very open mission statement it is hard to keep aligned with it. Of course, when you have a board of businessmen and graduates of an antiqued educational era, it is no wonder we wind up with a mission that does not drive but rather stall a school’s progress. We can do better and schools must do it together with a variety of its stakeholders. If you are an administrator, teachers, student, parent or board member of a school take a closer look at your mission and ask yourself if it represents what your school is, does and strives for. If not, why not consider a rewrite?

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