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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Final Notes on Vision

This is one piece of a continuing series of posts on school improvement from a manuscript I prepared for publication. They advance in time and concept in book-form beginning with the Blog post on March 21.

Vision in Action 
     Effective school leaders face the dual challenge of constructing and selling a viable representation of a desired state of being for the school community. This picture must be inspiring enough to engage the commitment of followers to expend the energy and effort required to breathe life into the vision. Without the necessary emotional impetus the speaker’s vision rings hollow and it seems ethereal and dreamlike. Your responsibility is to recruit people for a crusade of a higher calling. Attempts at using charts and numbers to invite followers on such a commitment will generally be doomed to failure. Jon Katzenbach states in, Real Change Leaders, you cannot “capture people’s souls for a number.” (Katzenbach XXXX)  
     As an example of such a challenge, John Sculley, in his book Odyssey, shares the recruiting pitch made to him by Steve Jobs, then in charge of Apple Computer. Jobs enticed Sculley from his much higher paying and more secure position as president of Pepsico with the following; “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water or do you want a chance to change the world?” (Garfield, p. 82) 
     Another example of the tempting bond between a visionary leader and inspired followers comes from the legendary story of Spartacus. (Senge, p. 205) This fact based story of ancient Rome in 71 BC, embellished by Kirk Douglas in the Hollywood version, relates the revolt of slaves engineered by Spartacus. The band of renegades achieved several victories against the superior Roman Legion. Eventually, they succumbed to greater forces and found themselves surrounded in an untenable position. The Romans, however, did not know which man was Spartacus, since the former slaves were treated impersonally without identities and the rebels did not wear distinguishing insignias or uniforms.  
     The Roman leader Crassius promised “You have been slaves, you will be slaves again but spared crucifixion if you identify Spartacus.” Spartacus, wishing to spare his battle mates, stepped forward and identified himself; “I am Spartacus.” And immediately, as the story unfolds, one by one, the others also identified themselves as Spartacus. The loyalty of the slaves was not invested in Spartacus as much as it was in the shared vision of freedom he had inspired them with. They were willing to die free rather than live as slaves.   
Schools and Vision 
     Fortunately, even on our most difficult days, we are not locked in a life and death struggle. But, contrast the story of Spartacus with the beacon that guides many schools today. How inspiring are the many face to face interactions we have with constituents or followers? Do staff members leave faculty meetings with a spring in their walk or do they seem burdened with the weight of frustration on their back? Take advantage of every opportunity to reinforce the vision. Constancy of purpose is how handfuls of authors and researchers have described the message. 
     The accountability movement in educational and political circles is so oriented toward test scores that the accepted “vision” of schools is simply the clarion to “raise the tests scores” or “let’s have scores higher than school district X.” This goal hardly serves as a vision worthy of the sacrifices of valuable time and sincere effort required by those involved. Where is the personal conviction? Where is the emotion? Where is the appeal to the follower’s inner feelings? And we wonder about detached constituents in and out of the school. Lacking a clearly perceived route or direction, or a narrow and murky path, they are unable to be considered followers. 
Vision with a View 
     Remember, as they said during the long overland travels of the Conestoga wagon trains, “The view only changes for the lead horse.” Do you get a clear picture of what image all of the other horses are limited to? That’s exactly the image they will have of you if you don’t, or can’t, involve them in the vision. 
Lack of Vision 
“The most pathetic person in the world is someone who has sight but no vision.” Helen Keller (Van Ekeren, p.182) 
Thoughts on Vision 
     Creating a vision does not require any psychic ability or exceptional insight. As a school leader I accept responsibility for serving as the steward of the organization. That means a commitment to maintain a vigilant and conscientious attitude while monitoring the compass points and staying the course for the school as it navigates through unexpected shifts in political, social, and economic weather patterns. If you expect to hold steady then it’s necessary for you to stand fast on resolute guideposts formed of cherished values and beliefs. If you can’t breathe life into the vision with passion and dedication, then how do you expect others to follow you in such a n arduous endeavor as school improvement? 
     My values and beliefs on the meaning and purpose of schools are embedded within my own personal experiences as a learner. I grew up under the constraints of poverty in a family of nine headed by two high school drop-outs. The casual slights resulting from lowered expectations teachers held for me have not been forgotten. Nor has the shame of walking through the lunch line clutching my ticket entitling me to a free lunch in a school with very few such recipients, or the embarrassment of wearing the hand-me-downs of other boys who were my classmates.  
     As a result, I hold clear and persistent perspectives on the need to democratize learning and make opportunities accessible to all. Obviously, I endorse practices such as Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement and other programs designed to heighten awareness and response to differences; distribution of support services (lunch, counseling, extra help, economic assistance,…) with dignity and privacy; thorough examination of disaggregated data to insure that all constituent groups are progressing with sufficient resources; and many other tactics to expand possibilities for all learners to meet with success. The reservoir of my own personal experiences has produced a wellspring of words, actions, and feelings that combine to propel the birth of a vision. 
     While Horace Mann Junior High and Schuylerville Elementary were sharp contrasts in terms of racial and socioeconomic composition, they nonetheless shared a similar future - a future that should be common for any school, a future of nurturing the hopes and sustaining the dreams for all, no matter their past or present, and a future driven by an expectation that everyone will be able and encouraged to meet their potential. 
     As such, it was a matter of developing a vision that encompassed essential words and phrases (hopes, dreams, potential, opportunity,… for all) and clearly conveyed with metaphors and similes in story form that promoted a relevant and credible context, with enough passion to solicit others in a compelling cause. An open-ended, educational version of Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech is vital in stirring emotions and sustaining the efforts of followers. 
     Staff members were encouraged to help “make this a school you would want to attend if you were a kid, a school you would want your own kids to attend, and a school where you wouldn’t mind spending nearly half of your waking hours each day.”  
     I preached the message at every available opportunity. It included references to what could be. It spoke of growth and potential, of imagination and determination. Most importantly, I had to pass beyond words and provide visible evidence of my commitment and belief in the vision with deeds. That meant trusting others to develop, that meant providing skill training and conceptual maps, and it meant empowering people by extending responsibility and authority, by accepting their mistakes as an outcome of accepting risks. 

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