sustainability of purpose

As a school leader without an actual school to lead and therefore no daily exhaustion and chaos, I have the liberty of thinking a lot about what it means create a sustainable school mission and vision (see what is design for some thoughts on the importance of driving purposes).

One way we try to do this at the REAL School is by articulating our design, in writing, as clearly as possible and then reworking this design document over time (as noted at, the design will be available for public comment as soon as we can get the web tech done). The design document is intended to map out what the school is and is not as well as what it might be in the future–all integrated to specific, meaningful purposes. For example, we write:

Elementary School: The REAL School cultivates an enduring love of learning by valuing each child, by listening to children and honoring their voices, and by helping all children construct their own understandings through exploration and experimentation. The REAL School day will feature community time for circle discussions, for establishing and reinforcing local norms and values, and for exploring civic and community values. Students will have time for free choice of activities in addition to time dedicated to whole and small group guided learning.

We are trying here to capture the essence, the core aspects, of the school. Some of these core aspects are really value choices, such as our emphasis on valuing and listening to each child. Other aspects are programmatic elements that we believe to be essential the mission of the school–experimentation, free choice, and community meetings are examples. The specific design of curricula or the daily schedule of the school, in contrast, are elements we believe must be continuously shaped and reshaped by the members of the school community.

The story of a school, told in the daily lived experience of the school culture, is shaped by context and history and by documents, structures, traditions, and routines. The challenge to school designers and sustainers, is to ensure that the story that is ultimately told aligns to the mission and vision of the school. Another way the REAL School is working to capture our design, therefore, is through what we have been calling “rich description.” These vignettes and writing exercises help begin our narrative.

For example, the team takes time at the beginning of each design meeting to respond to prompts like these:

REAL is a school where…

At REAL students…

At REAL Teachers…

REAL works to…

Another way to capture similar values over time can be seen at Science Leadership Academy, where founding principal Chris Lehmann recently published his thinking about his expectations for teachers. This is a mix of values and programmatic expectations that are, by there very nature, representative of fundamental purposes. The fact that taking care of themselves makes the list demonstrates a respect for the individual and the value of personal health–individual attention that is mirrored in the underlying expectation that teachers teach to the needs of their individual students. Chris also both asks for transparency from teachers and models it with his own public statement.

Lived values become enduring values.


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