Teach By Design
Aug 9, 2022

Start With Why: How to Put Purpose Back in Your Work

Your school has a mission statement. What about a purpose statement? This is your 4-step process to committing your school’s purpose to paper.

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It’s August.

Yesterday was the last day of school. We had big goals — cookouts, and s’mores, and sleeping in, and days at the river, and sunburned shoulders slathered in aloe. Then we went to bed. Then it was August.


Summer is a time to regroup. It gives me big-inhale-big-exhale energy, you know? But this summer, I didn’t fully unwind. I’m less refreshed than I wanted to be. When I looked at the calendar and saw all the commitments coming up, I started to feel like: "Why am I doing this?" I needed encouragement…and a reminder. Maybe you do, too. So, I need you to lean in.



Here it is.

The work you do matters.

There are people who depend on you to be there. They rely on your presence. They look forward to your class. They feel safe, and seen, and supported when they’re around you. Maybe that’s enough of a motivation to get you out of bed in the morning, but maybe you need a little more. What you need to define is your why. You need a purpose statement.

What's a Purpose Statement?

There are three different statements you may have heard about: vision, mission, and purpose. All three say something about your school’s culture and values. At first, it kind of seems like they’re different ways of saying the same thing. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find your school’s vision, mission, and purpose statements are inextricably linked and serve different functions. Spoiler alert: Your purpose lives at the center, ultimately defining every decision you make.

Vision Statement

The What

Your vision statement describes where you’re going; it’s the future you see for your school. This is where you describe what your school looks like in its ideal form. Whatever vision you see for your school, this statement is bright, it’s colorful, it’s aspirational, and it’s focused on the future.

Example: Our school will be a place where everyone feels connected to each other, supported to fulfill their goals, and inspired to achieve the impossible.

Mission Statement

The How

If your vision statement describes the future you see, your mission statement says how you’ll get there. It’s the roadmap. Your school’s mission statement defines who you are, what you do, and who you serve.

Example: We foster community and engage our students’ enthusiasm for learning in classrooms that are academically-driven, co-created, and culturally-responsive.

Purpose Statement

The Why

Your purpose defines why you do any of the work you do. Why are you a teacher? What keeps you coming back to the classroom? Why do you meet as a team every month? The answers to these questions get you closer to defining your school’s reason for being. The school-wide purpose statement compels, motivates, and unifies everyone who works inside the building as well as everyone you serve.

For a purpose statement to be meaningful it must be:

  • Authentic: It must express what people within your school feel is important
  • Coherent: It is consistent with the work that you perform day to day.
  • Have integrity: It is true even in the hard times. 1

Example: Our students’ experiences are valuable our work is better when we learn from each other.

The Power of Purpose

Why does it matter whether you’ve written down your purpose?

We know when it comes to your PBIS implementation, staff buy-in matters (according to researchers, it matters a whole lot). Staff buy-in is the number one factor contributing to sustaining implementation and, when it’s missing, it’s the number one factor contributing to everything falling apart.2 A critical way to get people to buy-in to the work you’re trying to do is to start with why you’re doing it in the first place.

In the business realm, researchers found when an organization’s purpose is defined authentically, coherently, and with integrity, “employees are twice as likely to go beyond the call of duty and do things for customers, colleagues, and their organization that are not strictly required by their jobs." That’s because employees can see their job as something aligned with their personal values and motivations. The work feels less like a chore and more like a way to contribute to the greater good. The same can be true for your school.

The power of purpose is personally beneficial, too. “Most adults spend the majority of their waking hours at work, which often serves as a primary source of purpose, belongingness, and identity.” 4 When you discover your own purpose, it makes your work more meaningful, and gives you a compelling reason to continue showing up every day.

How to Write a Purpose Statement

Your school probably has a mission statement. Maybe it even has a vision statement. What about a purpose statement? Have you ever written one? Would you know where to start? Authors Clara Fontán, Ángel Alloza, and Carlos Rey used the ways organizations around the world defined their purpose to come up with a four-step process everyone can follow to re-discover their own.5 Today, we’re exploring how your school-wide leadership team can go about defining its purpose, but the same steps work whether you’re exploring your purpose in the classroom, as an administrator, or even at the district, state, or regional level.

Step 1: Define Your School-wide Community

First thing’s first: You need to know who the purpose serves. Sure, the purpose your team comes up with is for you; it’s also for everyone you serve. You probably know who your school-wide community includes, but it’s worth it to write it down anyway.

A member of your community is anyone who will identify with your purpose and contribute to the work of fulfilling it. You can start your list with the apparent:

  • Students
  • Staff
  • Families

Now, those three groups are large. Can you define smaller subgroups within those larger ones? Custodians, teachers, administrators, aides, counselors and so many more make up the larger “Staff” group. Even if it feels obvious, making the list ensures you don’t miss anyone’s perspective in the next step.

Step 2: Recruit Input from Everyone

If our purpose statement is going to reflect our team and the community we serve, our next step is to get input from the groups we identified in that first step. There are lots of ways to get input from your school-wide community, both formal and informal ways. There are two surveys in PBIS Assessment that can help you in this effort:

  • School Climate Survey (SCS): The SCS is a suite of five surveys to measure student, staff, and family perceptions of school climate. Each survey asks people to share how connected they feel to students and their teachers, how safe they feel at school as well as how welcomed they feel. Results from these surveys give you insights into how your community feels supported as well as places where you could improve.
  • Feedback and Input Survey (FIS): The FIS is a suite of four surveys offering students, staff, and family members a space to give their direct feedback about what’s working and what isn’t. With the FIS, everyone gets the space to write down their ideas for how your school could do things differently to support their learning. When it comes to co-creating a purpose statement, the information you get from the FIS is incredibly important.

However you do it — using surveys or in one-on-one conversations — the goal in this step is to actively listen to your school-wide community. By recruiting their input, you bring to the surface issues that matter most to the people around you as well as gather ideas for how your school can do better.

The sentence or two you write is one way to let everyone know how you do school differently. It’s your opportunity to express your unique contribution to the field of education and a way for your school-wide community to connect more intimately with the work you’re trying to do.

Step 3: Consider the Possibilities

The third step in the process is to take the time as a team to reflect on what’s possible. The idea of “purpose” is expansive; your purpose could be anything. That’s why defining it often feels daunting. Give yourself some boundaries by reflecting on these three things:

  • What We Have to Be: The information you gathered in step 2 goes here. In this space, define the things you must do. What are the responsibilities you must provide? What does your community expect?
  • What We Want to Be: Once you’ve defined what you have to be, it’s time to think about what you want to be. When you think about what’s possible, what do you see? If this sounds a little like the vision statement we described earlier, you’re not alone. The two sound so similar, it makes sense to think about them in the same way.
  • What We Can Be: Your building is full of people with talents and strengths. In this space, list out the resources you have at your disposal. What programs are available? What teams do you have in place and what can they do? Who can you call on at the district level? How can you use these assets to build on what you have to be in order to become what you want to be?
Venn Diagram consisting of three interlocking circles with the words "have to be" in one circle, "want to be" in another circle, and "can be" in another. In the center, where all three circles overlap, is the word "purpose".

Now, draw these three spaces as a Venn diagram of concentric circles. The space where they overlap is where your purpose lives. Your purpose integrates these facets of your school’s identity – what your community needs you to be, what you want to be, and what you’re capable of being – and influences the decisions you make at every level.

Step 4: Commit Your Purpose to Paper

You’ve identified your school-wide community and asked them about their expectations and motivations. You’ve worked as a team to define what your school must be, what you’d like it to be, and what it can be. It’s time to put it all together and commit your purpose to paper.

It’s time to write your purpose statement.

The sentence or two you write is one way to let everyone know how you do school differently. It’s your opportunity to express your unique contribution to the field of education and a way for your school-wide community to connect more intimately with the work you’re trying to do.

Yeah, it’s a big deal. Let’s get to writing this thing!

Lay out all of the feedback you’ve received. Pull out the ideas you’ve heard. (Post-its will probably come in handy here.) Notice the language they’ve used. See if you can identify a unifying theme tying it all together. Then, when you sit down to draft that purpose statement, make sure to consider these six recommendations:

  1. Be concise. Use short phrases; they’re easier to remember and you want your purpose statement to be memorable.
  2. Avoid jargon. Everyone who reads this statement must be able to understand it immediately.
  3. Use defining words. When you think of your school, what words come to mind? You’ve got to include those somehow in your purpose statement.
  4. Stay authentic. Use language that feels natural to the way you and your community talks.
  5. Make it timeless. Don’t limit yourself by keeping your purpose small. Be visionary. Draft a statement that keeps you inspired for years to come.
  6. Co-create it. The statement should reflect more than just the perspective of your leadership team. Everyone within your school-wide community should read the statement and see their own identity and motivations reflected in it.

These four steps are so doable. I know because I used them to write my own purpose statement. I started by listing out all the people impacted by the work I do. (Yes. You’re on the list.) I’ve gotten feedback about my work from my colleagues, from your retweets, emails, survey results, and impromptu meet-and-greets at our conference booth. I consulted our Teach by Design mission and our mission here at PBISApps. Then, I thought about what I want my work to be. I put it all together and came up with this: Every student, family, and educator deserves a place to learn where they can be freely and enthusiastically themselves.

The statement you come up with doesn’t have to be the final version never to be edited in the future. It should be something you visit regularly throughout your decision-making processes to help you answer the question: Why are we doing this?

1 de Nalda, Á. L., Montaner, A., Edmondson, A. C., & Sotok, P. (2022). Unlock the Power of Purpose. MIT Sloan Management Review63(4).
2 Pinkelman, S., Mcintosh, K., Rasplica, C., Berg, T. and Strickland-Cohen, M. (2015). Perceived Enablers and Barriers Related to Sustainability of School-Wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports. Behavioral Disorders, 40(3), pp.171-183.
3 de Nalda, Á. L., Montaner, A., Edmondson, A. C., & Sotok, P. (2022). Unlock the Power of Purpose. MIT Sloan Management Review63(4).
4 Michaelson, C., Pratt, M. G., Grant, A. M., & Dunn, C. P. (2014). Meaningful work: Connecting business ethics and organization studies. Journal of business ethics121(1), 77-90.
5 Fontán, C., Alloza, Á., & Rey, C. (2019). (Re) Discovering Organizational Purpose. In Purpose-Driven Organizations (pp. 107-118). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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Megan Cave


Megan Cave

Megan Cave is a member of the PBISApps Marketing and Communication team. She is the writer behind the user manuals, scripted video tutorials, and news articles for PBISApps. She also writes a monthly article for Teach by Design and contributes to its accompanying Expert Instruction podcast episode. Megan has completed four half marathons – three of which happened unintentionally – and in all likelihood, will run another in the future.