The Role a Conference Room and Winston Churchill Played in Developing a School District's Mission
Updated: Apr 26, 2019
Six years ago I retired from my position as the principal of a middle school where I had served as an assistant for four years, and head principal for ten. As each year passes, many of the sharp details of the job begin to soften and fade. However, while I might not remember what it was like to jump up from my desk at the sound of a bell or respond to an urgent call on my walkie talkie, I do remember--with the sharpest of detail--so many of the faces of students, teachers, and parents who challenged and inspired me each day.
I also remember significant events and/or decisions that helped shape me as an educator and leader. And, while I had my fair share of missteps and failures, I am proud of the times when my actions resulted in a positive outcome with lasting results.
One of these significant “events” was the time when I turned a conference room into my version of Winston Churchill’s war rooms.
I should mention, here, that a few years prior, my husband and I had traveled to London and, while there, we visited the Churchill War Rooms hidden beneath the streets of Westminster. These rooms remain exactly as they did on the day the lights were switched off in 1945, with papers spread out on tables, and maps and other documents posted on the walls. Standing in front of these rooms, looking at these documents on display, one can’t help but be inspired by the amount of thinking, debating, and collaborating that occurred in these very rooms.
How, you wonder, does this have anything to do with a middle school principal and one of her conference rooms?
It started when a few teachers came to me concerned about the number of times they were being asked to leave their classrooms for trainings or other district-related workshops for which they were struggling to understand the purpose or value. These were teachers who did not hesitate to volunteer to serve on school or district-level committees and who would gladly attend a training or workshop if they saw how it would benefit the students in their classrooms. I wanted to allay their concerns, so I told them I would look into the matter and get back to them.
It was my intent to help these teachers see how the trainings were aligned to one (or more) of the district’s goals. The teachers forwarded the training requests to me and I printed a hard copy of the three goals identified in the district’s current strategic plan. What I quickly realized was just how valid their concerns and frustrations were.
None of the requests aligned to any of the district goals.
It was then that I commandeered a conference room and my “war room” quickly took shape. I stapled each of the district goals to one of three walls and left the fourth wall empty. I asked my entire staff to forward to me all training, conference or workshop requests they received.
Each request was stapled to the wall with the goal to which it aligned. While some requests had a clear alignment to one of the three district goals, the wall with the most requests stapled to it was the wall with no goal. It was pretty powerful to sit in this room and visually take this in.
My administrative team and I looked closely at the requests, considered the desired results of these, and debated possible reasons for why these might not be aligned to a district goal. It wasn’t long before teachers were joining us in these deliberations and the overall consensus came down to mission.
As a building, we had just finished developing our school’s mission. Looking at the walls in the conference room, it was evident this was lacking at the district level. As a staff we had come to understand how a mission focused on outcomes helped in clarifying priorities. Once we had our mission, we were able to align all our school-based decisions (e.g., programs, purchases, activities, etc.) to our mission. It was time for the district to do the same.
But, who were we to make this decision? According to Steven Covey’s Circle of Control and Influence, there are things that are in our control, things within our influence, and things that are out of our control. We crossed our fingers and hoped we had some influence. Luckily, I worked in a district that listened. Leaders from the district made their way to our “war room” and, like my staff and me, visually took in the four walls.
The discussions quickly moved from our small conference room to a much larger venue. Teachers, students, parents, and community members from across the district weighed in on what should be included in a mission for the entire district. An advisor (Grant Wiggins) was hired to facilitate the work and after several months of meetings and debate, the district unveiled a mission that articulated clear outcomes for all its students.
To this day, the district remains a mission-driven district. Decisions about curriculum and assessment, instructional programs and practices, hiring and personnel practices, policies and resource allocation are all made by first asking the question, “If this is our mission, then what does this mean for . . . ?” Everything must align back to mission.
This was definitely a significant event in my career and I can't help but smile when I think back on the actions I took all those years ago.
Since leaving my position, I have had the privilege of working as a UbD consultant--drawing on the principles and big ideas of the UbD framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. I have collaborated with schools and districts on curriculum, assessment practices, and, yes, mission and strategic planning.
If you would like some help with your own “war room”--or if you have a similar story to share--I would love to connect with you!