The cathedral in each school district

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I’ve recently had the opportunity to read several school district strategic plans and found them incredibly informative about the educational work each district is undertaking.  But the one missing component in all of them was a clear “artists rendition” of their future “cathedral”.  Without that “cathedral” each district will fall short of inspiring their staff, students, and stakeholders to achieve the heretofore unachieved.

What in the world is a school district’s “cathedral”?  Terrence Deal described organizations in terms of a series of frameworks.

  1. Jungle – A political framework indicating the fight for limited authority and resources.

  2. Family – A human framework focused on meeting the needs of the people within the organization.

  3. Factory – A structural framework focused on standards and productivity needed to get the work done.

  4. Cathedral – A symbolic framework focused on culture and meaning.  A focus on the why of our work.

Each of these frameworks exist in all organizations.  Students, staff, and stakeholders experience each over time.  Leadership is about making sure all exist with balance and purpose.  In the absence of leadership, the tendency is to move to the family and jungle, thus reducing factory and cathedral.

The cathedral for a school district is a clear picture of a preferred future that is inspiring, yet believable.  It is not a blueprint or a series of tactical actions.  These are often referred to as strategic plans, but they are typically very focused on the jungle, family, or factory.  They speak to the how of the moment.  All important, but not inspiring.

Strategic plans need to lead with a clear sense of the possible over the long term.  It needs to define the future, not in terms of activities or actions, but in terms of greatness, spirit, and meaning.  Schools don’t exist to implement reforms, hire people, or communicate with communities.  They exist to assure their students are prepared to be successful in life, however the student and society defines success.

Defining the future in terms of student success and often in terms of how well the school district will complete this work is critical to helping students, staff, and stakeholders to join the cause and to contribute their creative solutions. 

Building an ordinary building involves the jungle of scarce resources, the family care of the workers, and the factory of production.  What it doesn’t have is the inspiration of cathedral thinking.  Work that crosses generations of staff who commit to the cause even when they may not live long enough to see the final fruits of their labor. 

School districts don’t do ordinary work, they truly have the cathedral of student success that can inspire.  Strategic plans and school district leaders should be sure they focus less on educational mechanics and more on defining the student success cathedral they are building.  Put student success first, define how competitively the district will be in creating student success, and leave room for a full range of how options over time. We can’t predict the how with much certainty, but we can stay steadfast on the why of student success, education’s cathedral.

Robert Sommers