Define a Collective Purpose to Guide Your School’s Culture

As school leaders, it is never too early to plan how you want to begin the next school year. In what manner can you galvanize your staff to start a new year? Many schools have a mission or a vision statement, but I want to challenge that notion. Why change or divert from this philosophy? Many of us in leadership could not recite our specific mission statements by memory. Many of us will have to dust off the document and read it again to refresh our memory.

Instead of a mission or vision statement, I want to introduce the “purpose” of your school. At South Middle School in Harrisburg, South Dakota, we have come to call it our “collective purpose.” I wanted our group of teachers to embrace a core value together. Our collective purpose at South Middle School (South) has become the heart of our culture.

The “How” of a Collective Purpose

Before our learners entered our building in August of 2016, our district planned two days of in-service time. A portion of this time was building-specific, with the leadership controlling the value of that time. I’m sure a similar format exists in your district.

What will that time look like for you? First, I followed the lead of a few teachers in my building that flip their instruction. For our math department, the instruction is completed outside of school through videos. Noting this philosophy, I sent out some typical routines on a preservice agenda: staff handbook, logistical items related to policy, and central office notes. It was their responsibility to read or watch these pieces on their own. Second, I planned a time together that begins the culture of a family.

When we met together as a staff, I wanted it to include as many support staff as well. The collective purpose of a building should include more than certified staff. The conversation began with me highlighting a quote from Bold Schoolauthor Wes Kieschnick: “There are two types of schools: Those that prepare kids for the future, and those that allow adults to live comfortably in the past.” I told the group that I wasn’t there to make them comfortable. Preparing kids for the future involves hard work.

Next, I played Rita Pierson’s TED Talk, “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” After we watched this clip, I split them into groups to answer this question: What is our purpose at Harrisburg South Middle School? To facilitate the responses, I had them post to a Padlet. Padlet is a tech tool we use like a digital blackboard to collect information from various sources. Even when this part was completed, I challenged them to think more profoundly about our collective purpose. For what do we want to be known? What drives us to be the best? What one thing pushes purpose?

After a little more discussion, someone said one word that resonated with our group: relationships. This became the glue that held our work together; the collective purpose for us would be building relationships. But we did not end there. I emphasized that this will be spoken through our whole culture. Whenever we decide to accept a new idea, program, or instructional strategy, it has to fit our collective purpose of relationships. If it does not, then we don’t move forward with it.

The Impact of Our Collective Purpose

After employing our collective purpose for the past three years, relationships have become the fabric of our building and culture. I have been reinforced by our decision to focus on a purpose when I see the changes our kids have to handle. It can be emotional, social, physical. It relates to culture, home issues, disability or gender. When they come to Harrisburg South, though, they will find a consistent theme and purpose. Plus, they have the opportunity to contribute to the culture of our school.

How can you utilize a collective purpose to hone your school’s priorities and culture?

To learn more about this concept of a collective purpose, check out this book that I coauthored with Derek McCoy called The Revolution (Dave Burgess Publishing, 2019).

Darren Ellwein is the principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD. He is a 2017 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @DEllwein.

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