Principals talk a lot about vision. Take a look at any set of school leadership standards, and you’ll find a phrase comparable to “sets a vision of excellence” at the top of the list. It’s easy to understand why vision gets top billing. A strong vision:
- Inspires action and promotes reflection
- Steers decision-making and organizes thought
- Unites constituents and clarifies goals.
Vision is the foundation for every aspect of the job.
Districts and training programs usually encourage principals to craft their vision statements at the beginning of the year. Principals devote significant time and energy to writing thoughtful paragraphs describing their goals for the year. They share these paragraphs with their colleagues. They unveil the paragraphs to their faculty.
In my experience, not much. As principals, we spend a lot of time discussing what our vision statements are. We barely spend any time discussing how we can actually use those statements to guide our leadership and to improve our outcomes.
I have recently become obsessed with changing this dialogue. I spent too many years writing beautiful vision statements, only to watch them fall by the wayside. As a classroom teacher, instructional coach, and vice principal, I took great care to craft lovely paragraph-length visions of excellence for my role. These statements inspired me at the time; some even hung in wall frames over my desk. But when the year began and the rubber hit the road, these vision statements lay stagnant. Weeks passed without any real consultation. When it came time to fill out a mid-year performance review, I would finally glance up at the framed paragraphs. I marveled at their flowery language and lofty sentiments. The documents seemed foreign and distant to me. I sensed a real disconnect between my vision of excellence and my everyday reality. The two never seemed to fit.
As the years went on, I became increasingly frustrated with the disconnect between vision and action. I wanted to transform my vision statements from lofty ideals to practical tools. I wanted to build statements that would not only help me to imagine excellence, but also help me to achieve it.
So I began to think more seriously about why my vision statements weren’t working. The problem, I realized, was that the way in which I envisioned – during the summer, with plenty of time for sustained reflection – was entirely different from the way in which I actually worked – during the school year, hard-pressed for time and constantly called upon for quick action. As a result, I had not built statements that actually worked in the school environment.
Determined to break this cycle of vision neglect, I began to imagine what a more “useable” form of vision might be – one that would better serve the realities of a school leader’s workflow. A useable vision statement would have to acknowledge the work’s multi-faceted, fast-paced nature; it would have to be simple, flexible, and portable. It would have to be available at a moment’s notice.
I realized that those long, descriptive vision statements would have to go. They were too hard to recall for quick consultation. They were too specific to address the wide variety of issues occurring on a given school day. The statements would have to be shortened and simplified.
So, I began breaking my narrative paragraphs into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually, I arrived at one short phrase to represent each of my broadest goals. I called these user-friendly statements “Vision Rocks.” I hoped that these guiding phrases – which were short enough to recall and consult at any time – would help me bridge vision and action.
They did. Vision Rocks transformed my leadership.
My work during the first month of school provides an illustrative example. At the start of the year, I focused almost exclusively on teachers’ capacity to build strong classroom culture. Speaking to this goal, an early draft of my vision for the first month of school this year looked like this:
By the end of the first month, Harlem Central is a consistently safe, respectful, and engaging learning environment. Harlem Central scholars meet their teachers’ expectations 100 percent of the time; they can articulate how their teachers’ rules and directions support great learning. Harlem Central scholars exhibit authentic hard work in each of their classes. They love coming to school, recognizing their courses as equally demanding and joyful.
The final draft of my vision was:
Focus. Effort. Enthusiasm.
The two statements mean exactly the same thing. The early draft sounds lovely. It is the kind of vision I used to frame. But it is too wordy and specific to actually use on the ground. The final draft is pragmatic, pedantic, and powerful. I can use it.
Take, for example, how the two visions play out in classroom observations. To assess a classroom against the early draft, I would need to bring the written statement with me. It’s too long to remember. Then, I would have to rate the teaching and learning against its very particular metrics (“can students articulate how teachers’ rules and directions support great learning?”).
With the final draft, I don’t need anything in my hands. I can just walk into a room and think: how is the focus, effort, and enthusiasm in here? Which one needs the most work? Why do I think that?
One might argue that, though cumbersome, the first vision provides a leader with more clarity and direction upon entering a classroom. He or she knows exactly what to look for. But I have actually found that Vision Rocks, in their simple and broad nature, actually improves leaders’ observation skills. They demand more authentic and generative analysis. Overly detailed vision statements limit what a leader notices in a lesson. If a leader has five specific sentences describing what great “effort” looks like in a classroom, they will probably spend all of their energy comparing the classroom to each of those five sentences.
On the other hand, if a leader just walks into a room asking, “What is the level of effort in here?,” they have to think about and evaluate the classroom on its own terms. If the leader feels that effort is great, they have to look carefully and really justify that impression. If the leader feels that effort is lacking, they have to do the same. Vision Rocks, in their linguistic simplicity, encourages leaders to generate authentic ideas in response to what they are actually seeing – not in response to a set of prescriptive criteria.
Vision Rocks also promote vision-aligned communication within the school community. In the example the early draft is hard to talk about, at least on the fly. A leader cannot pass a teacher in the hallway and ask, “How are things going relative to the vision?” The vision is too hard to recall. But with the edited version, it’s easy: “How was the focus, effort, and enthusiasm in your lesson this morning?” Leaders can also easily organize their feedback to teachers around each Vision Rock. During the first six weeks, my leadership team and I always began verbal and written feedback with a reference to focus, effort, or enthusiasm. Teachers appreciated that their feedback was prioritized, organized, and consistently tied to our school-wide goals.
Vision Rocks also become tools for community-building. At staff meetings, we use Vision Rocks to ground our weekly reflections (“talk the person next to you about the state of focus in your classroom”) and our celebrations (“who has a shout out for a teacher achieving high levels of effort in his/her classroom?”). Teachers also share our vision with students, and ask them to reflect on their degree of focus, effort, and enthusiasm after each lesson. Vision rocks strengthen the team by providing all of its members with a clear understanding of their shared purpose.
With all their benefits, vision rocks come with an obvious caveat: simple phrases are open to interpretation. “Enthusiasm” can mean a lot of different things. You have to make sure that you lens-norm with your faculty before putting the rocks into play. Usually, I spend time at a staff meeting unpacking the meaning of each rock. I use descriptive paragraphs to help teachers understand what each rock means. I often supplement by using specific goals, work samples, and videos. The lens-norming doesn’t stop there. After observing a lesson, I may ask a teacher: “How would you assess the level of focus in that lesson on a scale of 1-5?” In a planning meeting, I may ask teachers to similarly score the level of effort on a scholar work sample. In both cases, I compare teacher ratings to my own, and explain the rationale for any discrepancies. This ongoing dialogue helps bring all of your team members to a shared understanding of what the vision rocks mean.
When your faculty achieves common understanding, Vision Rocks become powerful leadership tools. Short and memorable phrases empower all of your constituents – faculty, students, and parents – to understand and to talk about your shared goals. Vision Rocks have been a game-changer for me. I can actually use these portable, flexible, simple statements to guide multiple aspects my everyday work. After years of resigning lovely paragraphs to wall frames, it feels refreshing to bring those statements to life – to not only work toward a vision, but also with one.
For more on principals, check out:
- Preparing Principals Like CEOs
- 3 Things Principals Should Look for in 21st Century Classrooms
- Preparing Principals: Consider the Adaptive Challenge
Andrew Malone is Principal at Success Academy Harlem Central. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @MrMaloneSAHC.