Do We Know What Important Words Mean?

Can your school community achieve a mission or vision when they don’t know what the words that form these mean? Building a strong brand and a sparkling value proposition is not about saying you can do everything. It is about laser-sharp clarity about what you are going to do…and then doing it.

Over the last six months in workshops at a half dozen schools, I have engaged diverse members of the school community in the following exercise, taking about 20 minutes:

  • Read over the school mission, vision, value proposition, preamble to the strategic plan, school philosophy, essential qualities of a graduate, or whatever “guiding principles” the school may have. For some schools these might comprise a few bullet points or paragraphs; for others many pages.
  • Parse the documents highlighting key words and phrases.
  • In table groups, list the key words and phrases.

Each person places a dot or mark next to the words and phrases about which they think there is general understanding in the school community of what the word/phrase actually means.

The results have been pretty shocking at every one of the schools so far:

  • 50-75% of the key words and phrases receive no marks.
  • Another 10-25% of key words and phrases receive a few marks.
  • Usually, out of perhaps 20-50 key words and phrases, there is general agreement that the community actually understands perhaps 5-8 of them.

When unwrapped in this manner, many schools have guiding documents that require them to act like “God on a good day”. We cram in every possible good thing we can think of and say, “that is what we are going to do”. Needless to say, we don’t do many of them. What successful organization says they are going to focus on 50 things all the time?

Some of the exemplar schools I report on in #EdJourney, and others I have worked with since, have overcome this problem. Their community-wide “North Star” is comprised of a very few elements, and they talk about them all the time. Teachers, students, administrators, trustees, and parents all know what the school drivers are, what they mean, and how they are being implemented each day at the school.

Strategic planning and school organizational consultants have done a real disservice to schools in the past, either allowing them or guiding them to build these massively unrealistic documents, and then failing to insist that the community actually own the language. Take a half hour and see if your school community might have fallen into this deep rabbit hole. If so, we can solve the problem by having serious prioritization discussions, and then intentionally, visibly, and collectively aligning what you actually do with what you say you are going to do. That is how schools build value in the eyes of their customers.

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