Charting Your Course

from Flickr user yachtfan

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Seneca

For many, the new school year has already begun. For others, we are in the final planning stages before teachers and students return. Where will you lead your school this year? How do you determine to which “port” you are sailing? How do you chart your course for success, and how will you use your resources to make it happen?

As a newbie principal in the state of Pennsylvania, I am required to complete coursework through the National Institute for School Leadership. In our introductory course we considered the role of principal as “strategic thinker.” We took a good look at vision and how leaders develop and sustain meaningful vision, referencing The Principal Challenge: Leading And Managing Schools in an Era of Accountability (Tucker and Codding, editors).

Our facilitator asked us to come to class prepared with our district’s vision and mission statements in hand. Before class, he randomly organized and posted them so our districts could not be identified, and the “dissection” began! What were we looking for? We assessed each statement by asking the following questions. Is/does the vision….

Achievable? Why include statements in a vision statement that are unattainable? Doing so will frustrate the organization, and the vision will not be realized.

Focused on results that lead to accountability? Educators need to be held accountable for the work that they do. A vision that articulates a focus on results will help drive the organization to routinely assess the impact of their actions.

Measurable? How will the school know when their vision is achieved? How will it know when it’s veering from the intended course?

Simple and clear? How many of us can actually recite our district’s vision statements verbatim? (Or even recall where we have last seen it?!) This is not to say the statement should be short, sweet, and without substance, nor are long, eloquently written vision statements any more meaningful. Simple, clear language is necessary to make the vision…

Actionable? To achieve this vision, what will we DO to achieve it? What is our strategy? Who are the key players involved? What is the timeline? What resources do we need?

Lead to hard choices? In order to achieve the goals of the organization, sacrifices in other areas must be made. In accordance with our vision, where do we focus our efforts to ensure it is realized?

Worth fighting for? Above all else, if a school’s stakeholders don’t believe the vision is worth fighting for,  it is not likely to be attained. And what is more worth fighting for than the education of our children?

After our analysis in class, most of our example vision statements met at least two or more of the criteria, but not a single one would be considered an exemplary vision for a school. Many were almost poetic, yet not actionable. Others were vague and unmeasurable.

The start of a new school year is the perfect time to re-focus our efforts where they matter most. As educational leaders, we need to be able to identify our school’s/district’s vision and priorities. We need to keep The End in mind – our goals. We need to formulate The Ways – strategies for achieving our goals. We need to develop The Means– our people and resources that will help us meet our goals and realize our vision.

Sail on!


  1. David Mach said:

    I agree. One thing I might add to “Worth fighting for?” section is that principals, teachers, and leaders all need to foster “BUY-IN.”

    1. Look for the few people who seem to agree with you (those nodding their heads in agreement, taking furious notes, or smiling) while you deliver your new plan/strategy.

    2. Make these teachers, students, or employees your Lieutenants. Talk with them, foster their support, and reward them with relative freedom and a closer association with you.

    3. Get their feedback on how to improve your plan/strategy further AND what they like about it already.

    4. Build on your success… the others in the group that liked your ideas but may have hung back will feel more confident to follow you now that they see others supporting you. Reinforces those aspects of your plan that your LT’s said they liked, while modifying/rewording those parts they weren’t crazy about.

    5. Don’t dwell on winning over those who fiercely oppose you (and they will always exist). However, LISTEN CAREFULLY to what they say. Abraham Lincoln was a genius by taking all his political rivals into his presidential cabinet. Nothing is more valuable than someone who does nothing else but look for weakness in your plan (which of course is priceless information).

    August 18, 2010
  2. Lyn said:

    You make some valuable additional points. Creating teacher buy-in is essential, and using your strongest team members and most positive staff to encourage and support others is key. There will always be those who won’t buy-in to what you’re offering, but yes, their voices should be heard, so long as their words/actions are not a detriment to the learning process and/or create an unreasonable obstacle to achieving the school’s vision. Thank you for adding your thoughts!

    August 18, 2010

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