Making the Mission Statement Matter

Gail Dahling-Hench

Gail Dahling-Hench has dedicated her over 25 years in education as a teacher, a leader and a learner. She believes that teachers are being called upon to show courage and creativity in a time of rapid change. Students require our best individual and collective efforts to prepare them for a world that is difficult for us to imagine. For the past five years, she has been the Assistant Superintendent at Madison Public Schools prioritizing curriculum development and professional development that will invoke every student to engage in both content and critical capacities for the future.


Every district has a mission statement. We typically point to it on the walls of our schools; we pull words from it in PTO meetings and periodically review our mission for relevance. In Madison, we dissect it, we describe it in specific student outcomes, we build those outcomes (capacities) into every curricular unit, and we measure each student’s progress.

The Madison Public Schools are driven by a mission to prepare all learners to make a unique, positive contribution in a complex, global society. We are committed to fostering the diverse talents and abilities of each and every child in an emotionally and physically safe environment. We envision learning as joyful and learners as passionate. We support our educators as innovators in a dynamic pursuit of continuous improvement.

As dedicated district and school leaders, we believe in this mission and recognize the importance of creating a systemic approach to support these efforts. Our teachers have been engaged in a multi-year effort to develop curriculum by designing each unit with embedded learning experiences that make both subject area content and cross-disciplinary capacities come alive.

We recognize that this pursuit of developing curriculum to ensure fidelity of curriculum should not hold back innovation and the pursuit of ideas. As we engaged in curriculum writing, we recognized that some team members were envisioning a more student-centered approach. They aspired to design learning in ways to personalize content and were pushing on the comfort level of their peers. These were the teachers who were invited to explore personalized learning with Allison as their guide and companion on this quest. With the support of district and building leadership, these teachers from all different content areas have shared their work with you on Allison’s blog.

The last line in our Mission Statement values that objective:

We support our educators as innovators in a dynamic pursuit of continuous improvement.

As we met with our team last week, I leveraged the work of Richard Elmore to collectively examine impact of the experience on the professional learning they pursued. His work on transformational leadership and his volume of reflective essays was the foundation of the protocol: I Used to Think… And Now I Think…. As you can see from the quotes below, teacher-leaders have been living job-embedded professional development “learning the work, by doing the work” (Elmore, 2009).

  • I used to think that using standards to assess was limiting, now I think that using standards actually opens the door to more advanced learning.
  • I used to think being “tough” on kids for major assessment due dates and homework assignments would foster growth and responsibility. Now I think students take more ownership of their work, and learn more about responsibility, when the quality of work is valued more than the timeliness.
  • I used to think that implementing standards in a class meant a full commitment to standards based grading, and was an all or nothing process. Now I think I can implement standards in steps, and can have extremely positive impacts with those small steps.
  • I used to think I had to correct every single grammar error a student made, and now I think that students need to be held more accountable to reflect on their own errors (and only focus on a few at a time).
  • I used to think that students were only motivated by grades and now I think they can be motivated by the process of learning if allowed to work at their own pace and, at some level, take their learning where they want it to go.

These teacher-leaders are engaged in self-study of changing practices and the impact on student learning. They are driven by their own professional interest for the purpose of improving student learning and thus, informing the system of innovations that merit replication. Their commonality is not their content, but their belief that improving the depth of each student’s understanding of content can be individualized and that, in turn, students will experience the value of learning. For those teacher-leaders who are continuing to work with Allison next year, they each articulating a Theory of Action that demonstrates a causal relationship between an action and the intended outcome (Elmore, 2009). These teachers represent a range of disciplines from our high school including English, AP US History, Independent Study, Biology, and Spanish:

  • If we come up with a better record-keeping system, then we can tell students where they stand at more authentic times than the end of marking periods.
  • If I implement a three trimester standards model, I will be able to have students get tangible credit for demonstrating improvement (in relation to my earlier stated struggle about incentivizing improvement over just a better score).
  • If I have students establish the capacities and standards for their independent study projects at the start of the course, we will more effectively and clearly be able to conference about their progress and goals.
  • If students conference about their errors then they can articulate learning targets and strategies rather than just correcting isolated errors.
  • If I can facilitate more productive checkpoints/conferences, then students will be held more accountable and will ultimately produce more accurate and complete final products.

Madison is new at this work— we step forward… we examine impact… we question how we can improve upon the work we have studied. In doing so, we listen to students. This is what our students have said:

  • The independent project was an elective course that was motivating to seniors— now, that is quite a feat!
  • We were interested because we picked what we would do and how we would do it— it was not the grade driving us, but the pass/fail freed us to experience the learning in the process.
  • We are all now thinking that we might have found a career interest and something we may want to follow.

Parents voiced their thoughts using similar themes. They indicated that their students were always working on the project even if the “homework” was self-assigned. They were originally hesitant about the grading being a pass/fail, but found their students learning far more with the freedom that was provided. The amount of self-discovery was the greatest impact as their students experienced a new dimension to their own abilities as a learner.

Madison Public Schools will continue to create a path for innovation. We have a team of teachers that will explore their Theory of Action with a few colleagues and Allison Zmuda as their consultant. Allison will explore these ideas at their side via Skype, phone chats and face-to-face time with our teachers as they puzzle through creating a more student centered learning environment. This work is not easy; the educators are courageous and passionate, the students engaged in passionate pursuits. As we increase the volume of our student voice, and build more opportunities for students to co-create and socially construct understanding, we engage them in the kind of self-discovery that results in joyful learning. These opportunities for innovative exploration provide our system with rich information to examine, grow, learn, and continuously improve our practice.

One thought on “Making the Mission Statement Matter”

  1. It is the end of the school year and I have heard the words “excited about my essay” from numerous students! The work we have been encouraged to undertake is energizing for students and teachers- that says something in mid May. I’m already looking forward to next year. Thanks for this opportunity!!

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