Why Less is More with Mission
Many people have been asking me, in various ways, what I am most proud of as I leave Berwick Academy after 11 years. There are many answers to that question, but the first response is always making it clear that there is no “I” in the answer. No Head of School accomplishes anything in a vacuum but rather only with a village of people to move a school forward in a variety of ways. Often people like to focus on what we have added: field hockey, crew, turf fields, Wellness Center, Mandarin, new jobs, more financial aid – many additions come to mind. For this final edition of the 1791, I wanted to focus on our revised mission statement, approved by the Board of Trustees in January. Before our last accreditation process, I was able to lead this community through a process that shrunk Berwick’s mission statement from six sentences to three. In my final year, I am proud that my successor will inherent just one sentence of purpose: Berwick Academy, founded in 1791, is dedicated to promoting virtue and useful knowledge among the rising generations.
We have recently tried to use this publication to have multiple voices exploring one particular theme – most recently student-directed learning. Given some positive feedback on that approach, we thought we would try again this trimester with an issue focused on the importance of a honed mission for our organization. It is probably obvious that, to some degree, an organization will be strongest with the clearest and most concise mission possible. Organizations that try to be all things to all people lose their way easily in all sorts of industries. And yet it is also true that a mission that is not market sensitive in any way can also quickly become irrelevant – you can have the clearest mission in the world but if no one is moved by it, your organization is in trouble. Certainly I have always had a dream, as the School’s leader, that there would come a day when everyone in this organization – all 130 employees, all 600 students, and all parents and alumni might rattle off Berwick’s mission with ease. We are not there yet, but I think we are closer than we were ten years ago. So while physically being able to trim the words of the statement is important, how the mission is being used to lead the organization will be far more important.
From a faculty perspective, I can say with confidence that our efforts around Curriculum 2020 all come back to mission. Now, more than ever, our employee community uses the lens of “what best promotes virtue and useful knowledge for our students” in answering key curricular questions. What is powerful about Berwick’s mission is its inherent room for evolution and interpretation. Useful knowledge in 2018 includes discussion about Mandarin, Cultural Competency, and Innovation in ways that were not relevant in 1791. My hope is that this working interpretation will once again be different ten, 20, 50 years from now.
Each year in Ethics class, I take at least one session to explain to our eighth grade the difference in purpose between our mission (the what) and the core values (the how). Often they have heard more about the core values in their student experiences. I also explain to them that the mission statement is one of the three fundamental roles of our trustees, who literally (and legally) hold this institution in trust. In addition to holding the Head of School accountable and serving as fiduciary stewards, the trustees have a key role in setting the mission of the School and making sure our programs continue to align with and support that mission. In fact, the mission is our most compelling accountability measure. While admittedly complex to measure, it more fully captures our performance than a college list or a budget alone.
I also believe that our two biggest resources, dollars and time, are the clearest representations of our mission in action. That is to say, our budget is our best expression of achieving our mission, and our schedule is our best expression of how we can impart our mission on students. As such, mission has been a central driver in our conversation about a schedule change that is planned for the fall of 2019. Clearly being a mission-driven organization is as much about having the courage to say what you are not as opposed to what you are. Holding ourselves accountable to our mission will be essential to this School’s future for the next generation, regardless of the Head of School nameplate.
I will say that the process of revising the mission this time around was vastly different than the first time. While certainly plenty of opportunities were made available for constituencies to weigh in and contribute, there was a sense that as long as “virtue and useful knowledge” was at the core, people knew that was Berwick’s mission. While the additional sentences were nice, they were ultimately trying to explain more clearly what virtue and useful knowledge meant to us. Additionally, this time around we eliminated modifiers around K-12, co-educational, day school, and other limiters. The reality is that, over 227 years, the school has changed on virtually all of those metrics and yet elements of the institution have been timeless – we wanted to capture that timeless essence in this iteration of Berwick’s mission.
I will close by saying that I remain convinced that our mission is more relevant and market aware than ever. The goals of virtue and useful knowledge speak to two key realities. First, issues of character and leadership are at least as important as any academic skills we can offer our graduates. Said differently, if we produce really smart kids with a questionable set of ethics, I would suggest that we have profoundly failed these kids and our country. Second, at Berwick, knowledge must always have a lens of “useful.” I think that sense of connectedness and practical application to the world is driving some of the hands-on and collaborative experiences that are so central to Curriculum 2020. While traditional skills like writing, arithmetic, grammar, and oral presentations are as essential as ever, they are no longer enough. Useful knowledge also includes notions of global empathy, innovation, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
You may notice in past few weeks, a new display of our documents of purpose has been put up across campus. In addition to a shortened mission, a tightened core value representation, and an expression of vision, you will now see our Statement of Community as well. All of these statements taken together speak to a sense of direction and momentum that I hope will guide this organization for many years to come. As just one person and one Head of School, I can certainly say that these statements have become essential to many of my beliefs around education. Schools are organic, living places – just as we influence them, they also influence us. I hope you enjoy this month’s musings on mission and that we successfully remind you why Berwick Academy is an educational community of both progress and purpose.