Knowing the purpose for the work one does helps move both an individual and an organization towards achieving a vision that is greater than oneself and connects what we do to why we do it. Fullan & Quinn (2016) describe this purpose as a shared moral imperative. If this moral imperative is shared and supported by staff, parents, and the community, the mission becomes a tool to define actionable goals for the organization.
Here is what we learned from some of Wisconsin’s top educational leaders about being mission-driven.
Schools are busy places and there is not always the time, nor is it reasonable, to have every decision vetted by everyone. The mission should serve as the decision-making guide. Amy Levek of Whitefish Bay School District explained that the more you speak about the mission, “the more it becomes that march for decision making”. The mission can, and should, be the foundation for equity, inclusivity, citizenship, and academic achievement. Additionally, curriculum, instruction, and assessment should all be directly tied to the school's mission (McTighe and Wiggins, 2007). When considering the mission as a decision-making guide, it provides a more clear path forward when faced with the onslaught of challenges school leaders encounter.
Having a mission and leading with purpose is not a new idea. Decades of research support being mission-driven and highlight the consequences of not having a clear vision. In 1998, DuFour and Eaker noted that a school that doesn’t have a compelling vision is “a major obstacle in any effort to improve schools” (p. 64). Being mission-driven is a basic tenet of leadership and organizational success. Yet, consistently leading based on the mission is commonly lost in organizations. Therefore, understanding what being mission-driven is, how to consistently lead through a mission, and what a successful mission-driven school does is important to review.
A simple internet search provides countless resources for how to develop a mission statement for a school or district. Most of these resources focus on the development of a cross-section team of staff members that identify core beliefs and then work to craft the mission and vision. This is an important step, as the collaboration to create the mission can build buy-in and support for the direction of the school. However, many resources stop after the development of the mission. The words in a mission statement are only relevant if the actions by leaders and staff members align to the mission. In the Cedarburg School District, Jayne Holck explained that the mission is a barometer for measuring if you are doing things for the right reasons.
Once a mission is developed and implemented, making decisions based on the mission becomes the work of every stakeholder; however, it is the leader’s role to keep the mission at the forefront for all. A leader must identify their own “why” and then make it explicit to staff through communication and action (Schroeder, n.d.). Amy Ashton from Oshkosh Area School District explained that the mission must be what you are always looking for in the school and must be what you model and say as a staff member. The mission must be present throughout the school in both tangible, physical displays as well as in communication, behavior, and expectations.
While the leader is responsible for keeping the mission at the forefront, a school will not be mission-driven with only the leader believing in the mission. Leadership must be distributed and all staff must be responsible for making the mission come alive in their environment. With a shared purpose there is always another leader willing to step up to the plate when you need it to keep pushing the organization forward. Give those leaders a chance to shine! When a student or staff models the mission, it is important to celebrate it. Reinforcement of the attitudes and behaviors that meet the mission clarify what staff and students should be doing. Keep data at the forefront as well. Data can be a helpful way to see if the practices in place are providing results that meet or do not meet the mission.
QUICK TAKE: Being mission-driven starts with a leader who embraces having a clear focus for achievement. A successful mission is one that staff and students are able to live and breathe through. It is actively a part of how the school operates which takes alignment and actions to meet the vision by the members of the school community. When the mission is evident, point it out and celebrate it!
Special thanks to the educational leaders who contributed their thoughts to this article:
By Dr. Danielle Bosanec, Chief Academic Officer, Pewaukee School District
DuFour, R., & Eaker, R. (1998). Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Fullan, M., & Quinn, J. (2016). Coherence: The right drivers in action for schools, districts, and systems. Corwin.
Gabriel, J. G., & Farmer, P. C. (2009). How to help your school thrive without breaking the bank. ASCD.
McDowell, M. (2018). The lead learner: Improving clarity, coherence, and capacity for all. Corwin.
McTighe, J., & Wiggins, G. (2007). Schooling by design: Mission, action, and achievement.
Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Schroeder, J. (n.d.). Update Article: Your "Why" as a Critical Driver of Change. Retrieved from
Wodatch, J. (2016, November 01). 5 Strategies for Creating a Mission-Driven Learning
Community. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/5-strategies-creating-mission-driven-learning-community