Vision vs. Mission Statements… the chicken or egg?

Vision and Mission – What’s the difference and why does it matter?

If you have read my blogs, you know my intent is to put information out there that teachers can use the next day on the job in their own schools – without mincing words. And there is no topic more important than this one. I rank the creation of a clear school Mission Statement and an equally clear Vision Statement as priorities #1 and #2 for any administration.

But try as they may, schools continue to have difficulty:

  • understanding the importance of having both mission statements and vision statements in place
  • differentiating between vision and mission statements (as goals are so often incorrectly lumped into this category)
  • creating clear, inspiring, and uniting vision or mission statements
  • believing in the magic of how a mission statement or a vision statement works (or at least it seems like magic when it is done correctly!)

They are having trouble because they don’t “get” it. Teachers and administrators alike are “stuck in their stuff,” and though Harry Wong claims we are experts at “stealing” ideas (in a good way) from our colleagues, we also know that when presented with an alternate or eclectic approach to teaching, we are the first to say, “That’s not the way I do it,” and often turn a deaf ear. If you do that regarding the mission statements, you will be lost before the journey of change even begins. Fear of change is the biggest reason for failure in any school and our plates are overflowing. It need not be this way.

Ask a teacher to write a do now for a lecture you going giving at the local VFW Hall. They could put it together in a heartbeat. No problem. They would rock it! Same goes for developing an objective, group activity or how to close the talk. This is what we do (though too often we are made to feel as if our skills, and years of expertise, are as useless as the white crayon). Teachers are the experts at preparing lessons and following through with instruction.

( *Don’t even get me started on those – both inside and outside of education – who say schools are failing because teachers are not presenting interesting enough lessons or are not delivering clear enough do nows. I don’t buy that for one second, but there are many teachers falling for that and inching themselves one step closer to the frustration and defeat that is driving today’s school failure.)

Now ask the same teacher to develop a clear and meaningful mission statement that shows direction and purpose. They might scramble a bit, bring a few crumbs to the table, and eventually fall flat delivering something that would sound “school-acceptable,” but that would have nothing to do with a cogent mission statement designed to lay the groundwork for their school’s mission.

It is because we are not experts in the application of everyday business procedures and protocols. These ideas are – for the most part – new to education. Mission statements, vision statements and goal setting are traditionally cornerstones of business success. And just because schools say, “Let’s make a Mission Statement,” does not mean we are going to get it right. But businesses do get it right. They are good at it. No wait, successful businesses are great at doing this and it is critical to our survival that we start wrapping our thinking around some of their successes. To do this, we need to become students of business (and a few other big ideas of business), but this requires input from those who:

  • have navigated the business world – successfully
  • understand the current status of education (from the inside)
  • know firsthand the greatness of today’s teacher
  • realize the potential that is inside the walls of todays’ schools

Magic? Well, if you have never experienced how a mission or vision statement has caused an organization (or a school) to flourish then yes – you have not experienced the magic. But it is never too late to learn. Studies show organizations that have clearly defined vision and mission statements that are aligned with a strategic plan, outperform those who do not.

Let’s get started. So which comes first? Vision or Mission? The Mission Statement comes first. It defines your reason for opening your doors every day. The vision comes second and helps to further define your mission. But both are equally necessary.

We’ll start with mission statements, but before seeing some great examples, let’s first talk about questions the people in charge of a school need to ask themselves. These questions (Mission Questions) compiled by Warren Berger, were posed to widely regarded business innovators with explanations modified here for use by schools:

  1. What is our school’s purpose in this community? (Keith Yamashita) Sounds simple, doesn’t it. It is not. Every school in every area services different demographics for different outcomes. You must decide what your team can do best.
  2. What should we stop doing? (Jack Bergstrand) We have had enough time and collected enough data to tell us what tasks are no longer necessary or doing the job they started out doing. We are not building pianos.
  3. If our school wasn’t already up and running, how could we build a great new one? This question is asked because we all know what we would do away with and what we would keep to be effective in a brand new building. It is a great question to ask schools since they are so often run under the auspices of a higher power. But only by thinking outside the box, can one find ways to keep or eliminate “non-essentials” if they really wanted to do so.
  4. Where is our petri dish? (Tim Ogilvie) Where are administrators and employees free to question current school issues without recrimination? He says, “it’s up to (school) leadership to “provide permission and protocols for experimentation.” Our teachers have such great ideas, but are very, very reluctant to bring them to administration for a variety or reasons, but this is one “wall” that should be torn down.
  5. How can we make a better experiment? (Eric Ries) Schools are great for accepting the words of a handful of “experts” who are no longer in the classroom, yet continues to extoll the virtues of the latest and greatest solution. Listen to the science teachers. These dictates are nothing more than experiments and just because you are told this is the way it will work best, doesn’t make it true. This is why science teachers use the Scientific Method. No scientist would continue doing something over and over if it wasn’t causing the desired change. No doctor would continue the same course of treatment year after year if the patient wasn’t improving. (The next 5 are from Warren Berger’s book, “A More Beautiful Question.” All questions here are business-based, but have also been modified for school use.)
  6. Why are we here in the first place? Sounds like a silly question to ask of an institution such as a school, but if our mission statement is to educate young minds and only 25% of the high school students in a metropolitan city such as New York are deemed “college ready” then this might be the most important first question to ask.
  7. What does the world need most that we are uniquely able to provide? Many colleges are now seeking more data on learning outcomes and assessment strategies. They want to know if what they have done – and are still doing – is creating the desired change in their graduates. Are graduates being properly prepared for the real world? For example, many businesses are now seeking more 2-year college grads with specialized “certificates” rather than someone who holds a 4-year sheepskin. They want employees trained to do the work they need done. Are we preparing students for these same changes ahead?
  8. What are we willing to sacrifice? There are so many school applications for this question, but my favorite is, “Are we willing to sacrifice grades for student competence?” Is it all about the grade (and having our school look good) or do we want students to leave our school thinking, “I graduated from (your school) and I got the best all around education possible? Or are we going to have our kids go off to high school and college knowing they were socially promoted and are now woefully ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead? Better yet, how many of us have changed a grade thinking, “I don’t want to be stuck with him again next year!” or “She’s such a nice kid. I shouldn’t pass her, but it’ll break her heart to fail.” Now be honest. Can this be part of your new mission statement?
  9. What matters more than money (or in our case – graduation rates)? Refer to question #8. It is the elephant in the room. Are we seeking quality or quantity? In business we say, create a quality service or product, and money will follow. In schools we should be saying, create a quality student and graduation rates will follow. If you believe you are already doing this, ask yourself, “How many students in this year’s graduation class are not qualified to be receiving a diploma?” Again, be honest.
  10. Are we all on this mission together? When you go to school tomorrow, ask the teacher whose opinion you value the most, “What is our Mission Statement?” See what they say. If it is correct and you are satisfied, then ask others and see what they say. If you are not satisfied, ask administration. Yes, that is a leap for most of us, but that is where you will get your most honest answer. And you never know, just asking may open a door for your school to begin growing even more.

What is a Mission Statement and what does it do?

A written declaration of an school’s (organization’s) core purpose and focus that normally remains unchanged over time. Schools are in the unique position of this being particularly true, but changes in the mission statement must occur from time to time.

  • It is usually written in one or two sentences (remember, a vision statement is very long term.)
  • It should be on the lips of every employee – every day.
  • It communicates the primary sens of direction to all employees.

Some Great Mission Statements:

NatureAir: “To offer travelers a reliable, innovative and fun airline to travel in Central America.”

Nissan: “Nissan provides unique and innovative automotive products and services that deliver superior, measurable values to all stakeholders in alliance with Renault.”

Target: “Our mission is to make Target the preferred shopping destination for our guests by delivering outstanding value, continuous innovation and an exceptional guest experience by consistently fulfilling our Expect More. Pay Less.® brand promise.”

So then, what is a Vision Statement and what does it do?

  • Defines the desired future state of what an organization wants to achieve over time;
  • Provides counsel and inspiration for directing the path over the next five, ten, or more years;
  • Provides a “compass” – to let employees understand their individual work has more than just purpose  – that it contributes to the long term outcome of the organization; and,
  • Is clear and functional – all employees need to be able to repeat this at any given moment of the day. The way to do this is by starting out each day saying it.

The true beauty of a vision (statement) is that it requires no explanation and no “buy in.” Your teachers will take it to their hearts and figure out how to make it come alive for themselves, and thus for everyone. As a teacher who has worked in many different schools, I have yet to see a visible-to-all and clearly defined Vision Statement in any of the buildings where I have taught.

Great Vision Statements include:

Oxfam: A just world without poverty (5 words)

Feeding America: A hunger-free America (4 words)

Human Rights Campaign: Equality for everyone (3 words)

National Multiple Sclerosis Society: A World Free of MS (5 words)

Alzheimer’s Association: Our vision is a world without Alzheimer’s (7 words)

Habitat for Humanity: A world where everyone has a decent place to live. (10 words)

Microsoft: “Empower people through great software anytime, anyplace, and on any device.”

Here is a perfect example a Vision Statement vs. a Mission Statement:

The company, Life is good

Vision – A world where all children grow up feeling safe, loved and joyful.

Mission – The Life is good Playmakers partners with frontline professionals – such as teachers, social workers, and child life specialists – who dedicate their lives to helping children overcome poverty, violence and illness. These Playmakers us the power of play to build healing, life-changing relationships with children in their care.

If there is no negative attached to having a clear Vision and Mission, why do many schools not have them, or have poorly written ones on their websites, lobby walls, etc…? Some of the reasons I’ve heard are:

  • “We are so busy. We don’t have the time to develop one.”
  • “We tried it once and never came to any consensus.”
  • “Ours is on the wall as soon as you walk into the school. Most people are afraid to question it (even though it is no longer 100% applicable) as that would be seen as a negative by administration.”
  • “Everyone that works here already knows what we do, so what is the benefit of writing a statement about it? (I hear this most often from teachers when I broach the subject of there being a clear need for both Vision and Mission Statements.)
  • “We have our goals – who needs a Vision or Mission?
  • “If we make one up, it will be just ‘one more thing’ we will be judged by.”

But none of these arguments can outweigh the positive benefits of having solid mission and vision statements in place for all to use as tools for success. If a school cannot state its vision or mission statements, then how can it bring its people together working towards a common goal? Yes, this is some pretty serious business thinking, but why do schools feel they are exempted from this thinking?

Jennell Evans says, Not having a clearly defined Vision and Mission limits opportunities for the organization’s success and is a disservice to employees who show up for work every day. If an organization wants engaged and productive employees, it should make sure that they know how their work contributes to accomplishing the Mission (current state) and ultimately to the Vision (future state).

She also points out that in addition to other benefits already mentioned, a clear Vision and Mission statement can:

  • Strengthen culture through a unified sense of purpose;
  • Improve decision making with clarity about “big picture;” and,
  • Enhance cross-functional relationships through a shared understanding of priorities.

It’s never too late for a (school) to define its Vision and Mission. More often many even reinvent themselves through the strategic planning process, beginning with these two core elements. It may take weeks or even months to create both statements that work for your particular school, but after that it’s all smooth sailing!

What about you and your school? Do you know what your school’s Vision and Mission statements are? Can you articulate them? If so, how have they impacted the culture (or failed to impact because of their absence?)


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3 Responses to Vision vs. Mission Statements… the chicken or egg?

  1. Mary Alvarez says:

    As promised, very clearly written and understood. Practical and makes this task seem doable.

    Thank you!

  2. There is a distinct difference between the two, with both being crucial for school success.
    Vision: What the school wants to be seen as in the community. Example: _______ High School will be regarded and respected for graduating students who are college-ready in core classes and technology.

    Mission: Teachers at ________ will focus on curriculum requirements throughout the school years. There can be more than one mission statement, each school tailors the statements to their individual school.

    Goals: Established to meet the mission statement (each teacher and department can/will have individual goals).

    As the school mission is met, the vision statement is turned into a reality.

    An added motivator is a Motto: My school, whose mascot is a Hustlin’ Tiger, developed a Motto that states, “Hustlin’ Toward Success.”

    I have a PPT on the subject if you are interested. Email me at

  3. drcubbin says:

    Thank you, Mary, and how true David when you say, “As the school mission is met, the vision statement is turned into a reality.” That sums up the difference between the two beautifully. I also looked at your website and find it very impressive! Very down to Earth and impressive. Best Regards.

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