A word cloud is a simple way to see patterns in a body of text or to find similarities among several pieces of text with common goals. A word’s frequency determines its size in the cloud.
Because the perceptions of independent schools belie the great diversity found among them, I thought it would be interesting to look at the trends that emerge when the mission statements of many independent schools are compared. The image above was generated from the verbs found in the mission statements of 32 of Silverpoint’s Mid-Atlantic client schools.
WHAT IS YOUR POINT?
The attempt to distill an entire institution’s beliefs into a few sentences usually means that each word has been chosen very carefully by smart people who have a clear idea of what they are trying to say.
With that in mind, many people reading a mission statement expect each word to communicate far more than its dictionary definition. This is especially true when the reader is a prospective parent or faculty member trying to get a real sense of the place without the benefit of immersing him- or herself in your school’s culture.
Right away, the word “encourage” stands out as the most popular choice. Encourage is versatile for its ability to be followed by what is being encouraged. It may communicate your school’s nurturing ethos. But it could also be perceived as wishy-washy: “we encourage students to act with kindness, civility, and generosity of spirit” reads very differently from “we expect students to act with kindness, civility, and generosity of spirit.” In a results-oriented market, some uses of “encourage” may imply an attempt to keep accountability at arms length. Also susceptible to this impression popular are the popular “seek” and “strive.”
The other popular words generally fall into two categories:
Program-focused: Words like provide, create, and challenge generally lead to environmental descriptions that complement what the mission says about the outcomes a school values. The implication here is that the school feels strongly that it knows what things need to be in place to produce the kind of graduates it professes to value.
Student-focused: Words like inspire, foster, prepare, and instill address more directly the things that will be different about a young man or woman when he or she gets a diploma.
Schools face an incredibly complex assignment: to cause transformative growth in children in an environment they want to be in. The mission statement is a chance for schools to explain how they aim to accomplish both parts of that assignment, and each of the two types of words above has a role.
CLOUDS ON THE HORIZON:
I am an independent high school teacher and I write detailed comments about my students a few times a year for their grade reports. I thought it would be useful to look at a cloud of my comments this fall for two reasons. On the lofty, idealistic side, I wanted to see if I was positive and constructive in my use of language. On the pragmatic side, I wanted to see if my analysis revealed the heavy repetition of words that (I thought) meant I was being lazy in my comment writing. It was a valuable exercise, and I think I passed on both counts.
CLOUDS IN THE CLASSROOM:
The New York Times has a great word-cloud analysis of the inaugural address of each U.S. president:
It lets you glimpse the rhetorical goals of each ascending president from Washington to Obama. Any address, framed in the historical context of its time, gives an interesting insight into the values of a nascent administration that can enrich study of the era.
Note: For clarity, the verbs included in the mission statement cloud above were those that represented what the school intended to do. Verbs representing what the school aimed for its students to do (e.g., lead a productive life; achieve their highest potential; discover the interrelationships among different fields of study) were omitted. These might make an interesting cloud themselves! Here’s the example with all words.
Red Abbott is a product of independent schools who has taught physics and math at Suffield Academy, Landon School, and The Hill School, among others. Red is a big believer in the independent school model and is fascinated by the diverse challenges that schools face in their internal and external operations. Red currently teaches at Gill St. Bernard's School in Gladstone, NJ.