John Heaton challenges boards, administrators, teachers, and students to hold fast to their school's first principles.

I received a notice in the mail recently from the 100-year old Episcopal boarding school down the street announcing the appointment of a new headmaster. It took my breath away when I looked to the bottom of the letter to read the school’s mission statement, which for a century has been the verse from St. Paul to the Ephesians, “…until we all come to the full measure of the stature of Christ.” This statement is written in Greek in the stained glass of the campus chapel. The statement at the bottom of stationery, however, proclaimed boldly: “until we all come to full stature.” The “of Christ” part was neatly deleted with a simple keystroke, so I presume the students are just growing up with no particular end in mind. Well now, might we be just a wee bit embarrassed about Jesus? Clearly, mission drift has been going on in that school for a long time.

The hard work of sustaining fidelity to a clear mission challenges the most august and established institutions. The last twenty- five years has been a founding generation of classical schools in large part because the mission of providing classical education was dropped by schools that once espoused it.
Since the publication of Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning, there has been a renaissance of schools rising to the effort called for in that and subsequent books. There is a palpable energy felt in the hallways of these schools, freshness in the spirit of teachers in the classroom, an enthusiasm unmatched in any sector of private education. Once the first flush of success dims, however, mission drift can be a great enemy.

The mission of a school is obviously the stewardship of the “owners,” the board of directors. Boards, however, can only affect a relatively small handful of factors that keep the school on course, and most of those are systemic – hire the right head of school, enact policies that are on mission, etc. They cannot – and should not – interfere in the daily discharge of the school’s work. Thus, mission drift is most successfully attenuated when there is buy-in to the mission from top to bottom. Board members must be appropriately profiled and selected, but so must faculty members and students themselves.

School heads are in the single strongest position to guard the mission because they work directly both with boards and with staff. That doesn’t mean that teachers and other administrators don’t play a role. Here are a few suggestions that headmasters and faculty members might try:

Read your school’s mission statement out loud routinely. It sounds cheesy but lead teachers, deans, or heads of schools should consider beginning formal faculty meetings with a unison recitation of the mission statement. I’ve done this for more than ten years, and my faculty agenda template includes the mission statement and the collect of the day (ours is an Anglican school). Every meeting begins with these, and I have often found that even some minor detail on the agenda links directly with something major in the mission statement. Moreover, as time passes, this practice helps newer faculty members obtain a sense of what is important to you. Use those first moments of a meeting to “catechize” new members of the faculty in the big picture in a conversational and uncontrived way. Over time, they will come to understand that the mission is who you are. If you find that reading your mission statement this way is awkward, ask yourself if that feeling is because the mission statement sounds disconnected from what you’re actually doing. If the answer is yes, you’re already in mission drift.

Print your mission statement everywhere.

If you’re sending out printed information, include the mission statement appropriately on every print piece. Will this avoid mission drift? Of course not; but it’s a simple thing, that, over time contributes to establishing the main thing in everyone’s minds. Don’t overlook it.

Consciously justify programming in terms of the mission. Every program a school starts, changes, or eliminates, should be done because there is a missional purpose. If a school has an athletic program, it should be because it comports with the stated mission of the school. A perceptive leader will quickly realize that this drives other less visible policies. If a school’s sports program, for example, is driven by its mission, does it make sense to restrict students from playing sports because of poor grades? Maybe; maybe not. Would a student be withdrawn from, say, Latin, because he had a 74% average? Why then should a student be pulled from athletics if it was within the stated mission to develop students with team sports? One could substitute any number of other curricular inclusions in this example, but the point is to think through the mission and consider how it should drive policy.

Eliminate programs and practices that are not on mission. Before a school starts a new program, leadership should ask the basic question: Are we starting this because of a felt need, a temporary circumstance or because it’s within our mission? If a school’s stated mission is to educate traditional learners, it makes little sense to make significant and costly accommodations for the inevitable minority of students who present learning disabilities. I am not suggesting that a school should or shouldn’t, but before going out on that limb, the board needs to determine if it is part of the mission. A teacher in the classroom can be guided in the same way, albeit at a more granular level. If it’s the school’s stated mission to develop students who think and reason critically, one would expect that faculty and sectional team meetings would buzz with strategies to incarnate those skills in science, history, or Latin class pedagogies.

Talk openly with students about the kind of school they attend. Teachers should not take for granted that youngsters “get” the first principles of the school. They may know the buzz words, but they might not have a clue as to what Trivium, liberal arts, or dialectic actually mean for them. Take time to make the student self-consciously aware not only of what he’s learning, but of the larger commitments the school maintains. In short, provide the larger context of his efforts and the principles that are guiding that process.

Summarily, the mission of the school should not simply be a statement written down on the first page of the school’s by-laws. Every member of the school’s board, administration, faculty, and student body should be conversant in the school’s first principles that give identity and direction to their efforts. In that way everyone gets stewardship of the mission. As these constituencies gel over time, they will give unified voice to the school’s fundamental purpose, and the school’s reputation will successfully express its mission.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn