Mar 11, 2019

Say What You Mean


—By Gary Daynes, Senior Consulting Associate

The education sector is home to certain words that are universally used and universally loved. We all favor “relationships,” and “engagement,” and “leadership.” You can find almost no school opposed to them.

That these terms are so common and so admired should give you pause if you rely on them (or many others–I’ve chosen these simply as examples) at your school. Unless that is, when you use them, you say what you mean. If you define them and use the definitions consistently, you will be able to build a common culture within your school and differentiate your school in the market. If you don’t, though, you will miss both those opportunities.

Here is what I mean. The terms relationship, engagement, and leadership hide within them contradictory meanings. “Relationship” can refer both to a transaction (students have a good relationship with the registrar’s office when they pick up their graduation cap and gown) and to a life-changing interaction (my relationship with my teacher helped me discover my vocation in life). Similarly,” engagement” can refer to activity (student engagement is up because more students are going to sporting events than last year) or to connection with a topic (the stories of Flannery O’Connor engaged our students in understanding the complexity of faith in the south). And “ leadership” can refer to being in charge of an organization or the character traits that allow people to stand up in difficult times.

My point is not that one of these definitions is better than the other one. Instead it is that at most schools, contradictory definitions exist, unaddressed, at the same time. As a result, students get wildly differing experiences, faculty and staff inadvertently pull in different directions, and already tight resources are diffused rather than concentrated.

This matters because students and parents choose independent schools for the coherent, powerful learning experiences that they promise. And it matters because in a crowded marketplace where most schools, public and private, large and small, use the same terms, your school will struggle to stand out unless you are clear about what your school means and what it does to live out that meaning.

It is of course easier to say that a school should have common definitions of key words than it is to actually have them. Getting to a common understanding takes time. It means having hard conversations during strategic planning and training. And it means not doing things that other schools are doing, even when those schools are successful.

But the benefits of saying what you mean–the greater focus, clearer mission, deeper learning, and stronger position in the marketplace–surely outweigh the costs.

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