JODY SPIRO, EdD, Director of Education Leadership at The Wallace Foundation, is the author of Leading Change Step-by-Step: Tactics, Tools, and Tales (Jossey-Bass, 2011).
Vision and Focus
The Starting Points
Lots of initiatives are not always a good thing. You need to select the ones that are really helping.
- A middle school principal
One principal recently commented that bumps and bruises are part of any meaningful change process. Indeed, this is to be expected. There are many obstacles along the way (some predictable and others that will surprise), but one well-known aspect of change is that people cannot cope with too many changes at one time. Simultaneous reforms can be overwhelming even for people who like change. Fortunately, effective leaders can compensate for this.
It is of the utmost importance for an education leader to be selective about the number of changes pursued at any given time. Once a limited number of changes have been identified (preferably only one at a time) all focus must be given to their individual pursuit. More typically there are multiple reforms and many mixed messages to be given priority. They cannot all be done with always-limited resources. Picking the one or two that, once accomplished, will facilitate the others is crucial.
Here's an example: one otherwise excellent district leader always confused his colleagues each September with a back-to-school address designed to inspire them with the goals for the upcoming year. Few could argue that everything articulated was important, but-by the time he got to the seventh and eighth priorities, the audience was lost. What were they supposed to do? Were they to focus on dropout prevention? Improved test scores in reading and math? Improved student attendance? Parental engagement? Improved physical education? Better nutrition in student lunches? Opening health clinics in the middle and high schools? Adding foreign language for all secondary students? Getting all students to read twenty-five books each semester? All worthy efforts, no doubt. However, it would be impossible to concentrate on all without diluting time, attention, and resources. And, of course, none would actually be accomplished.
But, not only do successful education leaders identify a limited number of priorities and demonstrate total commitment to their accomplishment but also focus on money, people, and time to achieve their successful implementation. It also means not giving up, persisting despite the obstacles that arise, revising the plan to meet new circumstances, and giving it full attention. By doing this, not only will the first priority be accomplished but also momentum will be built for the accomplishment of future reforms.
That's why, before going on to subsequent chapters, it is necessary to discuss vision and focus. These are indispensable factors for the success of all initiatives.
Setting the Vision
Perhaps the best description of the importance of setting a vision comes from a group of eight principals from five districts who recently wrote a handbook for other principals after reflecting on what they thought their colleagues would most want when developing such a roadmap (GLISI, 2013).
The group found these indispensable elements:
- Developing the vision by getting input from staff members
- Collaborating with the school leadership team
- Imagining the inspirational future state of the school or district
- Recognizing the common direction of growth
The vision should be "inspirational and aspirational" and should communicate what the school hopes to achieve (GLISI, 2013, p. 7). Of course, communicating the vision is important, but it must be translated into action. As an elementary school principal observes, "The vision needs to be more than a catchphrase. The vision has to be lived day in and day out."
Why is the vision so important? Here's a success story told by an elementary principal:
A few years ago, I received a card from one of our school's best teachers. The note was a "thank you" for challenging her to continuously improve her performance. For years, this teacher outperformed her colleagues, consistently receiving exemplary evaluations and achievement results. I was surprised to read that the teacher was considering transferring to another school before I arrived but that the development of the school vision, and, more important, observing me holding myself and others accountable to the vision, encouraged her to stay. Once she was convinced that the school leadership team was serious about our vision, she challenged herself to be serious about it too. She went on to become not only a leader in our school but also a leader in our district. (p. 6)
The vision as expressed by another elementary school principal is "I see my job as preparing children for opportunities that haven't even been created yet." Of course, the goal is not only to have a well-developed and aspirational vision statement for the school but also to have it align with the aspirational vision statement of the district. Here are two examples of how this works (GLISI, 2013, p. 8): School Vision Statement District Vision Statement
[Our middle school] will be world class with students who achieve excellence in all areas. Staff will be experts in their field who are dedicated to life-long learning and student success. Families will partner with staff to help students achieve their maximum potential; and students will constantly strive to improve in everything they do. [Our district] will become a system of world-class schools where students acquire the knowledge and skills to be successful as they continue their education at the postsecondary level and/or enter the workforce. We, the [elementary school] community.will establish a safe and supportive environment that will maximize the potential of all students. We will provide differentiated learning experiences through authentic, engaging, and challenging instructional practices based on individual learning styles. As a family, we will foster success for all students in order to promote college and career readiness, as well as equip students with skills needed for life in the 21st century. [Our district] provides all students the best education available anywhere, preparing every child to lead a rich and productive life.
See It in Action: Vision
Two detailed video examples of principals who have set visions and used them as the basis for schoolwide reform may be found at http://bit.ly/highpayoff1.
Here you will follow two principals have been developed by Public Broadcasting Service affiliate, WNET. They have set visions for their schools and how the schools reflect those aspirations. Each principal (one in New York City and the other in Gwinnett County, Georgia) has created a vision statement using stakeholder feedback and a needs assessment. The schools have recently undergone demographic changes that have required a revisioning, which the principals describe. The principals communicate the vision and are able to successfully transmit it, and they demonstrate how they have used the vision to drive instructional improvements.
Both schools use their visions to put out there what the school stands for and how it goes about delivering on this vision on a daily basis. The New York City high school principal describes how his school developed a vision for all students to be prepared for college. He describes the vision as "spirited" in that all members of the school community buy-in to it, including how it manifests itself by teachers in their classroom. The vision was created by all members of the community and involved much re-writing and refining. The vision translates into high expectations in the classrooms and all aspects of school life. Both schools in the video provide examples of putting a strong instructional focus in their visions. So, even though they are different school levels in different parts of the country, the communication of instructional focus through the vision is clear in these examples.
Of course, a vision statement needs to be implemented in all aspects of community life. All might agree that selecting a priority and devoting time and attention to it is important, but it is also insufficient. Good intentions will not make this happen. The leader has to walk the talk, infuse all efforts with the pursuit of this priority, and devote time and resources to its achievement. Coaches often refer to this as "keeping your eye on the ball." An elementary school principal has observed that "making sure that the majority of time is spent on instructional leadership is really the key to being a successful leader."
It is also worth noting that the district or school leader needs to enable others to have the same degree of time and focus in the school or district.
One principal was pleased that the leadership team successfully implemented a new system of classroom walkthroughs and coaching for teachers. As a result of this success, he thought they would be eager to engage in the development of new curriculum. Instead, he encountered resistance. What was going to be taken off their plate so they could concentrate on this new work? If it was just an add-on, not only did it seem less important but also they did not have the time to focus on this new work. What's good for the principal is good for the team!