I am here with 30 kids in a 30 foot cube – what is the mission?

Have you ever been thrown into a situation that you were not prepared for? Were you ever a member, or leader, of a team or organization that always seemed to be under fire, as it struggled to meet its mission? Did you ever feel that your team was working very hard and was still failing in spite of the efforts of the team? In how many of these situations did the leader, or a team member, declare a halt and rally the troops to do an Azimuth Check (are we going where we planned to go) with the mission? If you work in public schools, my guess is that you answered yes to most if not all of these questions, with the exception of the last one. For that reason, it is time for public schools to get out the compass and set up a perimeter. As you read about our situation in Iraq, think about your classroom, or school, or the class where your child goes, or went. If you are entirely disconnected from public schooling (except for the taxes that you pay twoards them), think about what goes on inside the walls as you go to work each day…

With a cool name like 82 ROC, one might think my unit was a high speed special operations cell of the 82nd Airborne. Our unit and mission were not that glamorous. The ROC was an Oregon National Guard unit of approximately 50 soldiers, very heavy with senior NCO’s (non-commissioned officers, or sergeants) and field grade officers. Our mission was to fall in under I Corps from Ft. Lewis in the event of a war or threat of same in I Corps area of operations, the Pacific. The mission of a ROC (Rear Operations Center) is to run and manage the rear area of the fight – everything from security, intelligence and logistics to the coordination of unit movements, so that the Corps main HQ can focus on the fight on the front. In the case of the Corps main being out of commission (either getting wiped out, or making a jump to a new command post) then the ROC would assume command of the entire Corps for that time.

As so often happens in public schools, what started out as a comfortable mission for the ROC quickly morphed into something that we had not planned nor trained to take on. In the military at the end of a mission we conduct Lessons Learned so that we will not continue to make the same mistakes, and will apply past experiences to future missions. Let’s see if we can bridge the gap between the military and educational worlds in order to execute the mission of the latter.

The ROC’s mission in Camp Virginia, Kuwait, was to monitor and report on the flow of troops and equipment in Kuwait as it moved through to Iraq. We had just settled into this assignment when we were summoned to make the jump to Logistical Service Area Anaconda, located north of Baghdad. It was an old Iraqi Air Base and COL Charles Yriarte was to be the Base Commander.  This was a huge assignment for a National Guard unit to assume, as Anaconda was the main logistical hub and also the largest US presence (approximately 15,000 troops when full grown) in the Middle East. It was also in bad guy country.

In meeting the mission given to him, COL Yriarte had two tough challenges. First, he had to Task Organize (match sections of his unit to particular tasks) in order to meet the Specified Tasks that were part of the mission. These included providing base security and rebuilding the base. Secondly, he had to learn to protect the mission his unit had been given as other unit leaders – colonels and generals – attempted to undermine his command or to assume it for themselves. Tasks implied in his mission included establishing relationships with other commands on the base, developing timelines and procedures for base reconstruction, and the mundane issues of feeding troops (as well as disposing of their waste).

Mission essential tasks included engaging the locals in a constructive manner, while at the same time seeing to the securing of the base, two tasks that seem complimentary yet also counter to one another. While attempting to meet the mission handed to him by higher headquarters (Combined Joint Task Force-7 (CJTF-7)) by properly utilizing his troops and fighting off the sharks attempting to make his command nothing more than a glorified ombudsman, COL Yriarte also had to meet his personal mission, and to be aware of the personal missions of the 45 members of his unit.

Just like the mission of the 82 ROC on Anaconda, the mission of public schooling is continuously being redefined as the culture form which it draws its students and staff adds additional specified and implied tasks. The most pressing challenge is to take the time and effort required to define the mission so that students, staff, and stakeholders know exactly what it is schooling is supposed to accomplish and how it aims to get there. Webster’s defines a mission as “A specific task with which a person or a group is charged”. If we are to take this definition at face value, and attempt to apply it to public schooling, where do we begin?

What is the mission of public schooling – what should it be? Let’s hear from you!

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