Before biting into a protein bar the other day, I contemplated how the very thing I was about to eat was analogous to schools. The front of the wrapper was not the image of an athlete. Nor full of color or fancy font.  Rather it was simple.  A list.  The ingredients I was about to eat: 3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, and no B.S. “We tell you what’s on the inside on the outside,” is their tagline. What if schools were as transparent? 

Some readers may have played the game, “Shop for School.” Either for your own children or possibly as an educator. I know I have played various times over the years, keen to note the long list of “ingredients” on school “wrappers.” Websites and promotional materials touting ideals and maybe even unknowingly a bit unethical and deceptive.  Surely, however, with the best of intentions. The modus operandi tends to lend itself to “we can be everything to everyone.” A lack of focus and where more, very likely results in less. Such simplicity four ingredients, and “no B.S.” seemingly doesn’t exist in the educational world. Rather, it is common for schools to have mission and vision statements, values, attributes, and sometimes even definitions of learning. One precursory search resulted in the following, and what’s scary, is that this “story” is not unique to this district or school. It is the norm. Further, the reality is, this example is far more streamlined than many others. 

At _________(fill in the blank), a students’ educational experience focuses upon:

  • 21st Century Skills (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity/ innovation), global citizenship, and cultural competency.
  • Athletics, extra-curricular activities, leadership, and community service 
  • External & Internal Values: Culturally Competent Citizens
  • Healthy in Mind & Body

The school’s mission and vision are purposefully not added to this list for a few reasons. Chief amongst these is the sheer irony. Though there might be nobility in genuinely attempting to create environments of care, the long laundry lists of “who we are,” “what we are about,” and “what we impress upon children” inevitable creates pressure cookers.  

Following and Fulfilling Mission Statements 

Truly creating “Cultures of Care” will be most evident when we throw up our hands and say, “enough is enough.” Only so much food can be piled up on a plate before it spilleth over! Further, I would argue, it is hard to cultivate a love of learning if we are instead fashioning stress-filled experiences filled under the guise of preparedness. This very real pressure students are feeling is nothing new. In 2013 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health conducted a poll that resulted in nearly 40 percent of parents sharing that their high school student experienced a lot of stress from school. Another survey even a few years earlier, of students themselves, conducted by the American Psychological Association, found that nearly half of all teens — 45 percent — said they were stressed by school pressures.

And it isn’t like the pandemic alleviated any stress. 

The CDC reported how more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, what is it going to take to truly create school communities of care? A more streamlined and focused approach surely would not hurt. This does not mean that values, attributes, skills, etc. fall by the wayside. Rather, simplify. For the sake of following and fulfilling mission statements where students are at the center.

Fancy infographics sometimes seek to do this work of simplification and yet, ultimately there is no easy way to disentangle the fabricated mess. Smiling faces from a diversity of backgrounds also might beguile when in effect, if the schools were protein bars, their ingredients would more resemble this:  

Do we even know what these ingredients are? And if so, are we willing to put synthetically created ingredients, passed off as food, into our bodies?  

What about our children? Are we okay with them marching off (or us sending them!) to schools where there is a nonsensical, juggling act of 99 balls in the air? Even if 90 balls stayed afloat in the air, the environment would be imbued by insincere complexity and a constant rush to catch the next ball.  

A situation not unlike what our students feel in schools across the globe. Tails chasing dogs. An answer? Or, maybe THE answer?

Simply begin to focus!

The Puppet Master

“How foolish I was when I was a puppet.” These wise and likely not unfamiliar words were spoken by the 19th-century fictional protagonist, Pinocchio. Some could argue that our current system of education has us similarly by the strings (note: our 21st-century education is not much different than Pinocchio’s days!), Caught up in busyness. Happy to add one thing more. And one thing more. And yet another thing. Strings.

Strings that then control us.

Whilst adding and adding, little consideration is given to what might be substituted. Something needs to give. Might we possibly begin to discuss what could be refined?  

An End to “Busyness as Usual”

Schools are a bit like improper fractions.  


What if we simplified and reduced it?


Imagine, instead of 36 things to focus upon, schools radically reduced themselves. Say, to four ingredients and no B.S. This entails “cutting” some strings. Possibly from the puppet master him/herself and “busyness as usual”.

Not everything can nor should be a priority. 



  1. Hello Matt,
    Thank you for this metaphor, it is a fun one to play with!

    I too have seen “everything to everyone” as a norm in most schools that I have interacted with as an educator and a parent.
    Reflecting on how that dynamic manifests even in the microcosm of a single classroom- I think it comes from the desire and need to provide a “second space” that meets the complex (demands and) needs of learners, family context, and society.

    I can see how the ingredients that would go into a recipe for the intentional development of human beings- intellectual, emotional, physical, societal, etc. can become long. One of the challenges therein is to maintaining high quality ingredients, which can become expensive and untenable, tapping the resources of schools (educators, staff, administrators) and the students themselves. This is where the ingredients begin to be questionable as resources are stretched thin and, say honey, becomes high fructose corn syrup. And, of course, the health of the product, the educational experience, is compromised.

    So what to do, what to do?!

    The beginning lies in your ending, “Not everything can nor should be a priority. ” Unpacking that statement is a significant and necessary ask of any one school:

    -Honing in on priorities and sustaining an understanding that not all things are equal, so when allocating resources, what are the priorities?

    -What is a priority NOT to do, have, or provide? This can mean that some aspects of human development happen outside the school’s oeuvre. For some schools that might be spirituality or athletics, with the family and community as the active place for these parts of life. It also can mean that a school takes a stand to not provide something that they donʻt believe in. For instance, many schools like The Putney School in Vermont (https://www.putneyschool.org) do not provide Advanced Placement (AP) courses, as they “question the value of standardized tests as an indication of academic rigor.”

    -And then there is sustainability… quality educational programs are a long-term investment. As people and ideas move in and out of schools and ideological favor, making central priorities fragile if not immortalized with clarity in the scribed mission, vision, values, etc. This is where I think your point is so essential. The words that go into those documents require almost painful discipline to maintain the focus of the day-to-day application of priorities. And that organizational discipline is constantly tested by the desire for junk food in the face of resource allocation.

    Thank you, as always, for stimulating thinking and discussion!

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