HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
The Power and Practice of Visioning
A seasoned consultant to Jewish nonprofits, Leventhal draws on his extensive experience to offer guidance to schools on the procedures and successful practices of writing mission and vision statements.
For twenty years in business and fifteen years in congregational consulting at the Alban Institute, I have experienced the power of visioning. I have been asked hundreds of times to help congregations create a vision (noun). I have made it my focus to help them develop the practice of visioning (verb). Visioning is an active practice.
While not an expert on day schools, I have dealt with issues of religious school strategy as a congregational consultant. In surveying community day school websites, I found a range of communications approaches. Some schools focus on telling “about” themselves. Some have “mission statements” that explain their purpose. Some have “core values or principles” that seek to explain how they do their work. There is a wide range in the scope and sophistication of these communications, and all these elements are important in what I call a “strategic framework” of shared assumptions, visions, strategies and goals.
The Power of Visioning
A vision is a picture about the community you aspire to be. While a mission tells the outside world what you do, a vision needs first and foremost to inspire the leadership and stakeholders of a community. The best PR is positive “word of mouth” by satisfied clients and customers. If your customers can’t get excited and promote your vision, it will not be very compelling to others. It has to have energy and passion that will motivate people to try to make the dream a reality. The primary goal is not to come up with a short catchy phrase to go on your website. It is creating a visioning process that helps shift the organization’s focus from the next 35 days or even the next 3-5 months and stretch it to look out to the next 3-5 years.
Let’s look at an example of school vision. The Heschel School in New York has several vision statements. One of their visions is “to create an environment that encourages the professional and personal growth of teachers and administrators.”
This vision challenges leaders to create opportunities for growth in their day to day efforts and to provide resources for teacher training. It also likely imagines partnership with other organizations. Peer learning and collegial networks such as RAVSAK take time to build and energy to maintain. Without a vision it would be easy to cut corners on teacher development when the budget needs trimming.
The school also strives to create a meaningful experience for students; it seeks to develop the “understanding that the discovery of personal meaning and the growth of individual identity can emerge from the rigors of study.”
Parker Palmer (The Courage to Teach) argues that good teachers are able to make connections. When students experience how teachers make the connection they are better able to make their own connections. My guess is that Heschel’s leadership is able to sustain teacher development because their vision suggests a connection between these two visions. Heschel needs teachers who continue to grow in order to help students gain knowledge, skills and capacity to grow.
Mission statements, core values and visions are all part of a strategic planning toolkit. The word strategy comes from the word strategos, meaning “the art of the general.” Strategies work to focus your efforts so you can increase their chance for success. If you try to operate in every market and to be all things to all people, you may be spread too thin to make an impact. There is a rabbinic saying, Tefasta merubah lo tefasta, tefasta me’uta tefasta. If you seize too much you have seized nothing, if you seize a little you have seized something. The goal of visioning is to provide a desired future that helps leaders stretch to their potential (and gain something) but not to reach beyond their capacities and become overwhelmed and break.
What’s in a Vision?
It will be helpful to consider some key vision elements.
Categories to Frame the Vision Work
Your vision should include categories you want to explore in developing future plans, such as financial sustainability, teacher development, family engagement, inclusivity, etc. Schools should create statements that can be given to a committee or a task force as a guide to future work rather than just a short pithy phrase for your letterhead.
Values to Carry with You
School visionaries should do some study about the values that will shape their work. As they dream about the future, what values will they carry with them? The Solomon Schechter School of Westchester lists values that “create an implicit contract among the members of our community”:
Ahavat Yisrael—Love of Israel. Showing our love for and commitment to the Jewish people and the land and state of Israel as central to Jewish identity and continuity.
We infuse our students with love for Israel and its people, a sense of responsibility for its welfare, knowledge of its history, and a commitment to all Jews worldwide.
Gemilut Chasadim—Social Action. Establishing a better world through exemplary behavior, leadership, and acts of kindness.
Our students embrace Jewish moral values by caring for others, honesty, hospitality, care of animals and nature, and active participation in a range of projects that reflect our values.
Kavod—Respect. Embracing diversity and respecting ourselves and others as we are created in God’s image. We teach respect for both American and Jewish values and promote understanding and goodwill toward those of other faiths and beliefs.
Kehillah—Community. Taking part in and responsibility for our community as the context for meaningful Jewish lives.
The Schechter Westchester community extends far beyond our walls. Parents, teachers, and students share the responsibility of supporting each individual as well as the kehillah as a whole.
Talmud Torah—Lifelong Learning and Study. Instilling a love for continual learning through balanced study of Torah and general studies.
We study Judaism from its historical perspective and embrace our religious and cultural heritage. We provide intensive experiences in all secular subjects, including English, mathematics, social studies, science, physical education, and the arts. At Schechter Westchester, the Jewish and general aspects of our students education represent a unified whole.
These visions in hand, the stakeholders preparing the vision statement are better prepared to paint a picture of the life of a values-based community.
Pictures in the Minds of Visionaries
We want to tap the life experience and intuition of the participants in the visioning exercise. Steven Covey (Seven Habits of Highly Effective People) argues that effective people “begin with the end in mind.” Visioning is about our aspirations 3-5 or even 10 years down the road. We ask participants to avoid trying to “problem solve” today’s problems using yesterday’s solutions. Rather ask, “If we were successful in the next three to five years, what would our school look like?”
Specific Ideas that Come from Community Life
Planning leaders need to connect the vision to enduring Jewish values and to the community context: its people, its times and it capacities. Beth Am Synagogue in Baltimore takes traditional values and locates them in their urban Baltimore setting: “We aspire to … reinvigorate urban Jewish life in Baltimore. Beth Am belongs to the Reservoir Hill Coalition … helping to purchase and rehabilitate abandoned homes and resell them to homeowners.”
Who should be Involved?
Some people argue that the staff leaders should write the vision and tell others since they may have the most training and knowledge. Others argue that the board should write it because it is their responsibility to ensure a mission and vision. I suggest that there should be broad consultation with parents, teachers, students and other community stakeholders.
Ideally, there should be a vision-writing team that facilitates the process. School leadership needs to delegate the writing to a team of staff and volunteer leaders with knowledge of the life of the school community and vision-writing skills. Visioning is an iterative process. There needs to be several rounds of visioning and various drafts of the vision.
- Round one: the school leadership and the board
- Round two: invite the commentary of the teachers
- Round three: invite the commentary of parents, students and other stakeholders
At each round, the most recent vision draft is presented and questions and commentary are welcomed.
How To Conduct the Initial
Set Up Room
I like to put 3M Post-it paper (the writing won’t leak) on a wall. I use four sheets for each vision category (family engagement, teacher development, academic proficiency etc.). Participants are gathered in front of the wall in a semicircle as a whole group. Over the years I have had groups from 10 to 75 do this type of exercise.
Explain the Rules
The facilitator poses the following question: “If our planning process was successful and you came back and visited the school in 3-5 years, what would we experience?” Here are a few of the kinds of questions that might be posed.
What would students be doing?
What would students be feeling?
What would students be learning?
What would the relationship be like between parents, students and teachers?
What would parents be learning?
How would teachers be growing?
What would people in the community be saying?
Facilitation of the Whole Group
The facilitator then welcomes participation and waits for it to “bubble up and out.” The facilitator repeats the vision statement that come forward in truncated form. A scribe writes the statement down on the wall.
Brainstorming techniques encourage conversations. Participants speak for themselves rather than debate others. Facilitators demonstrate active listening by repeating statements as they are written down. Visionaries start anywhere. A vision can come up by thinking of current concrete specific practices that are appreciated and building on them. Vision may come from a Jewish value that someone brought into the exercise and dreams to see in action. Some visions need to be coaxed out. Introverted people may appreciate the chance to write their vision on 3 x 5 cards and submit them.
Small Group Work
Each category can take 15-20 minutes. I always take one category and do it together with the whole group. I then go category by category. If I have a very large group I may delegate the other categories to smaller groups and empower other facilitators to manage these. Again, they will have 15-20 minutes to generate some vision statements. All groups have the benefit of having just completed one vision. The same instructions are given and they begin.
When groups have completed their statements, I invite the whole group of participants to do a gallery walk with me as we look at the visions on the wall and listen to each facilitator share the group’s visions. I welcome a few people to add their visions to remind everyone that the visioning process will be ongoing. These documents represent vision 1.0. There will be many revisions as leaders follow up.
Following Up: From Vision to Action
Allow Some Sacred Messiness
I advise vision-writing teams not to worry about making the vision statement elegant at the beginning. People are encouraged to remain informal and relaxed. Use bullet phrases to start. Avoid wordsmithing. Don’t rush. The vision-writing team should help keep the vision conversation going through several rounds of visioning.
Get Grounded: Connect the Vision to Reality
Planners are encouraged to dream, but most leaders and planners are not by nature dreamers; they are practical, concrete problem solvers. That said, it is important to help visionaries see what their vision might look like if these visions were turned into actions. We suggest that the vision-writing team invite participants to create one supporting goal that brings the vision into action. The primary purpose of this goal exercise is to clarify the vision. The secondary benefit is to generate helpful action items.
Be Mindful of your Capacities
Your vision needs to be connected to your strengths and community possibilities. For example, a small congregation with an aging membership in a community that is not attracting young families should not have a vision to be a center for young families. If you are running large deficits and thinking of cutting or combining key positions, a vision that describes the work of a large influx of new staff people will be seen as fanciful. Don’t wear yourself out by trying to “seize too much.” Statements well beyond your school’s realistic capacity may frustrate members of the team who have had disappointing experiences with visioning or strategic planning that was not grounded.
Keep It off the Shelf
Vision statements must be used. If leaders don’t refer to them, they just sit on the shelf. The school leadership needs to model this attention to vision by referring to it in developing strategies, providing strategic direction to committees and task forces, and in developing priorities. When initiatives are launched they need to take this “teachable moment” and show how the vision is shaping the work to be done.
The world of American Jews and their Jewish institutions is going through a period of major change. In times of change, we can’t just continue to use the same old strategies and hope for different results. Visioning is a powerful way to welcome the knowledge, life experience and intuition of a broad group of people. It quiets, for a time, the voices who say “we tried this already.” Yes, some people may remember failed efforts from the past, but the visioning exercise welcomes different participants for a different moment. The practice of visioning is a critical core competency for today’s leaders that will allow new approaches to a challenging but potentially blessed future.♦
Robert Leventhal is the leadership specialist at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in New York City.
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The key to a school's success is the articulation of a strong mission and vision statement and an administration and board that stick to these ideals. Mission and vision differentiate a school from its peers and proclaims the unique value proposition that the school offers. Reconsider the purpose and mission of Jewish day school education from a variety of perspectives. Then, gain advice for composing a mission statement and discover the range of uses that such a statement can serve.
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