Is your school special? Do you have a shared community passion that drives your teachers and students? Are there things you do better than other schools down the road or across town…or anywhere else in the country? Do have dreams, wishes, or aspirations for the future that can be realized with strong collective effort and a shared commitment?
If your answer to these questions is “no”, “maybe”, or “I don’t know”, then ask yourself why a family should send their child to your school. Public or private, families have a rapidly increasing array of options for their children’s education. If your answer to these questions is “yes”, then ask yourself “are these answers deeply embedded in the thinking and planning that drives our school? Do we translate the value of what makes us special into what we do in every classroom, every day?”
The main reason that many school’s strategic plans (and daily learning experience) look the same is that schools fail to undertake a true self-assessment rooted in questions like these. They fail to unwrap what is special or unique about what they do or what they want to be. In the language of Bo Adams, they fail to study their own “ethnography” in ways that will guide their strategic and tactical development.
Traditional strategic planning starts with brainstorming ideas, and then leaps straight to dumping those ideas into similar buckets. This fails to filter for the unique ethnography of the school. Lacking this step, schools fail to leverage the core strengths that may provide differentiated value in the eyes of their customer/families. In the past this failure has gone un-tested or unnoticed. Schools did not need to amplify their unique qualities or aspirations. Those days are gone, so we need to think and plan differently.
In zero-based planning, we take the time to assess our organizational worldview. We ask those foundational questions that unwrap shared commitment, dreams, aspirations, and strengths. We gather illuminating questions and answers from teachers, students, parents, administrators, and the surrounding community. We ask open-ended questions that allow responses from outside the framework of what we have done in the past. We don’t use the same worn-out surveys of community satisfaction; we get people into large rooms and groups with pads of post it notes, walls we can write on, colorful pens, journals, cameras, and anything else they might need to express themselves and we create opportunities for them to dream, imagine, story-tell, build, and draw who they are and what they want to become.
Now we have valuable content to group, map, gather, and synthesize. Now we can see what connects our school in terms of shared strengths and valuable outcomes. Only now can we align our resources in support of an educational experience that is special, rather than one that is the same as so many others. Now we are ready for the step I will describe in my next post: re-imagining a school that transcends, rather than reinforces boundaries and silos.