An Inconvenient Truth

Below are key elements of school district mission statements from 14 districts in the NY Metropolitan area.

It is the mission of the (Name of school) to develop:
active, life-long learners
curious, compassionate learners
students responsible for their own learning
independent learners able to work collaboratively to solve problems
creative and critical thinkers
develop students’ individual strengths, skills, and talents
engaging, challenging and personalized learning environments
connections to the global community integrity as a core value
appreciation of self-worth and individual differences

These wonderful concepts to which these school districts have seemingly dedicated themselves, are not in evidence in the reality of what goes on in their school buildings on a day to day basis.

It’s as if there are two realities. One reality is what we think and say to each others as educators, and the other is what we actually do.

It’s as if by enshrining our highest aspirations in the mission statement, we have done something meaningful. It’s as if we hung a sign in front of our house saying we believe in helping our fellow man and then proceeded to do nothing more than sit in front of the TV, shaking our heads in disbelief at the suffering we see.

Here are a few of the key 21st Century Skills that we talk so often about:

Initiative & Self Direction

Flexibility & Adaptability

Leadership & Responsibility

Productivity & Accountability

If you were hiring someone to work for your business wouldn’t you want them to show Initiative? Wouldn’t you want them to be Self-Directed?

Where in our schools do students get to practice Self-Direction? Every minute of their day is scripted, supervised, and monitored. When do we give them Responsibility? Not phony responsibilities like remembering to bring in their pencils or doing their homework; but real responsibility; with real relevance in the context of the real world.  How about opportunities to practice real Leadership?

As a general rule, we continue to emphasize working alone and following directions. By our actions we make students feel like they cannot handle real responsibility. We don’t develop their leadership; but do the opposite; we dis-empower them. They have little say in their education. We tell them what classes they have to take, what teachers they will have, what times of day they will eat lunch, what they will have for lunch, what textbooks they will use, how much homework they will have, etc.

We do this knowing full well that these are not the attributes to which we aspire in our mission statements. We do this knowing that these are not the skills that will be key to their success as citizens of this country, nor the world.

We can do better than this. Glancing at the mission statements above, it would seem we know better.

So what is it going to take to have us start embodying our beliefs?

What will it take to get us to stop living in the illusion that our words, our insights, and our good intentions are enough?

When will we recognize the inconvenient truth that without commitment and effective action, we are simply pissing in the wind?



10 thoughts on “An Inconvenient Truth

  1. Wow!
    I end every email I send with an ancient saying:
    Think Good Thoughts,
    Say Good Words,
    Do Good Deeds.

    … and indeed the thoughts and words are empty without the deeds!

    I think that we spend so much time sugar coating feedback to students that we end up spending too much time doing the same when looking at what we do ‘to’ students at school. We pat ourselves on the back focusing on the appreciative aspects of Appreciative Inquiry, and not enough time inquiring why our mission and our actions contradict each other.

    Great post! I’m confident that you are someone that acts on what you say…

  2. Dave,
    I like the ancient saying you share. For me, it’s about embodying one’s beliefs. When my values, beliefs and actions are in sync, then I am living a ‘centered’ life. Things flow easily.

    For me, it remains a constant struggle to be ‘centered’.


  3. This is profound actually. What you’re really getting at is values in practice. We live certain values when it’s convenient for us to do so. For example, we talk “green” but keep driving our cars, buying our big homes, going on jet planes to far away places, etc. I think the key is it’s really hard to practice what we say especially when what we say requires us to change what we do, move out of our comfort zone, take risks.

    Anyway, what will it take you say… a combination of external and internal motivation – which are different for each individual. No easy answer…

    1. Brian,
      Right. We get the value concept intellectually…say ‘going green’; but we don’t develop and commit to the daily practices we need to shift from our old lifestyle.

      Think about all the New Year’s resolutions that don’t last into February.

      So, the easy part of change is knowing what to do on a macro level (go green, lose weight, empower students).

      The hard part is doing it.

      This conversation can get very deep. But in shorthand… I have found committing to a limited set of specific practices that will take me a step closer to achieving the macro goal is the key to getting started. These don’t need to be huge practices. They can be very small at the beginning.

      I’ve had leadership coaches for many years who helped keep me on track and remind me of my commitments and practices, as well as to encourage me when I slipped backwards and began to beat myself up with self-criticism for being out of alignment with my values. Over time I fell backwards less and less as I developed a “new normal”.

      We can do this.


  4. It is a struggle as a teacher when your purpose doesn’t match your values. Part of that struggle seems to be fitting your aspirations to a workable practice within a system that is not geared toward such flexibility and responsibility. I feel this frustration in my practice at the moment – that is I know what I want to do, what I value and yet the results do not reflect those goals. Back to the drawing board, but with the knowledge that the changes can’t all be made by me alone.

    However, I think you’ve certainly hit on questions that we should be asking at a school, district and systematic level about how we build education to really develop capable, responsible young adults.

    1. Blair,
      Wow. There’s a lot in your comment.

      1. Purpose not matching values. “when your purpose doesn’t match your values.”

      2. Developing practices that match your aspirations. “struggle seems to be fitting your aspirations to a workable practice ”

      3. Struggling within a system that isn’t in alignment with your aspirations or practices. “a system that is not geared toward such flexibility and responsibility.”

      4. Participating in practices that don’t produce the results you want. “yet the results do not reflect those goals”

      5. Complexity involved in personal change and organizational change. “changes can’t all be made by me alone.”

      Blair, I appreciate your openness and honesty. Way too much here for a simple reply.


  5. Thanks, Pete. Your post definitely pushed my thinking about my own practice further. I think what your post highlights so well is the contrast between expressing the goal/desire and the act of making the change. This is what I was getting at by sharing my own feelings about my practice at the moment. As with many things, it seems the easy part is the knowing, and the challenging part is the action. Just because it is difficult, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards it:-)

  6. I’m pleased to see that one of the key words is transformation. I am a teacher at Hong Kong International School and I have been doing research on social conscience curriculum. Through the courses we teach students truly are offered a transformative opportunity to leave behind the self-focus of modern society and embrace a community-centered approach to life. Fortunately, I teach at a school that gives me tremendous curriculum freedom to explore what best resonates with students in this time and with their cultural background to reach this goal. We combine explorations of the big questions of life with out-of-the-classroom service experiences to help students determine what they really believe about the world and their role in it. If you would like to know more, see my blog:


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