February 28, 2014
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MAKING A MISSION STATEMENT
Kevin Cleary, President, JALT, Tokyo, Japan, http://jalt.org

Recently JALT did something that we had never done in our 39 years of existence—we adopted a formal mission statement. To be precise, thanks to a unanimous vote at our June 2013 Executive Board meeting (EBM), we now have the following statement of our mission:

“JALT promotes excellence in language learning, teaching, and research by providing opportunities for those involved in language education to meet, share, and collaborate.”

At its core our mission statement asserts that we promote excellence in language learning, teaching, and research. That is a fairly safe statement to make, isn't it? It would be a bit strange to promote "adequacy" in these facets of language education, or even "competence." However, if we strive for excellence in all that we do, then we can surprise ourselves with what we can accomplish as we never stop trying to do our best.

Although the JALT Executive Board might well have quickly approved the core version of the mission statement as the entire one, the committee that worked on the statement wanted it to include a human element. Therefore, the closing clause "by providing opportunities for educators to meet, share, and collaborate" made its way into the version of the statement that we were to put up for a vote. We were of two minds about this wording. "Educators" is clear and concrete, and thus brings an image to mind, but, on the other hand, it seems a bit limiting. For example, ELT publishers, who are very important members of the JALT community, are not what one normally thinks of as "educators," although they certainly provide educational materials and are thus, functionally speaking, educators. In the end, at the committee level, we felt that the use of "educators" was the best wording, despite its limitations.

However, after we brought it to the EBM, a motion to amend the statement by striking "educators" and inserting "those involved in language education" was proposed and passed, and the final draft was then approved unanimously. The members who proposed this change brought up the example of publishers, and also members of boards of education or others who are in a community we serve but are not, strictly speaking, educators. Those of us on the Mission Statement Committee were completely on board with the proposed change. Although the new wording softened the statement, it made the statement more inclusive and allowed all the members of our community to see that they were included in our community and in the mission statement. We were reminded of the importance of having fresh eyes on any document and were moved by the careful consideration that the Executive Board gave to the mission statement.

This overview may make it sound like the mission statement was made in a short burst of concentrated activity and with relative ease. In fact, the idea of adopting a mission statement was first brought up in November 2011, but was not approved until June 2013. We spent a fair amount of time over four full-weekend EBMs (in February and June of both 2012 and 2013) to discuss the mission statement, so it ended up taking 2 full years, administratively speaking, to get the mission statement into a form that would be acceptable to the Executive Board. Furthermore, between those EBMs, the Mission Statement Committee spent a lot of time discussing and drafting versions of the statement. Some of the mission statement drafts we came up with in our internal discussions were very brief, others were similar in length to our final one, and still others were in the classic three-sentence style, which turned out to be much longer than anything that the Executive Board wished to adopt. As you can see, after all was said and done, JALT ended up with a very simple and clear statement. So was all this effort worth it?

A good case could be made, and was made, that JALT did not really need a mission statement because we had survived quite well without one for 39 years. However, if we had explicitly identified our mission much earlier, it is possible that we could have operated more efficiently and effectively over those years. At the least, we now have a touchstone against which to measure every proposed: "Does this proposal fit our mission to promote excellence in language education?" If we can't answer that positively, then we should probably find another way to use our precious time and energy. With more and more demands being made on our time, if the mission statement can help us concentrate our efforts into useful areas, all the better.

One reason that the process of drafting a mission statement took so long, while never testing our patience, was that the various drafts that came before the EBM for feedback were each found in turn to be too short, too long, too vague, or too detailed. Although those judgments sound contradictory, they were in fact all correct. Each EBM also had quite a few different members in the assembly, as Chapters and Special Interest Groups (SIGs) often send new representatives to the EBM to give their officers some experience with "national" management. Thus, each time a draft mission statement came up for review, several people who had no background on the project or the previous discussions gave valuable insight.

In any case, for the June 2013 EBM we had finally arrived at a draft that we felt was ready to be brought up for a vote instead of as a matter for discussion. If our final version, which happened to be quite similar to the very first one we proposed nearly 2 years before, had not passed then I'm sure we would have been given sufficient feedback to make one that would be acceptable. Fortunately, with the one small but important tweak to "those involved in language education," we ended up with an improved, approved, and useful statement of our mission.

How will the mission statement be used? As mentioned above, our mission statement gives us a continual push to accept nothing less than the pursuit of excellence. The documents that we use, the publications that we create, the conferences that we organize—everything we do should reflect our ambition to excel. We have already applied the mission statement to a few projects, and it has helped us improve the image we give to potential members. Soon, I trust it will help us improve our fundamental work and that done by Chapters and SIGs.

To get a more tangible feel for the mission statement, I urge you to visit jalt.org and view the mission statement in context with photos from our international conference and testimonials from JALT members. Seeing smiling JALT members at a conference as they meet, share, and no doubt make plans to collaborate brings home how the statement encapsulates and expresses JALT’s mission to bring people together for the purpose of improving language education. The testimonials on jalt.org also make clear that many of our members are members of JALT so that they can improve themselves and help others improve. It is our privilege to be in a position to help these dedicated educators in their quest for professional development.

Furthermore, it's encouraging and heartening to know, and be able to articulate, that our purpose is to serve learners through the support of teachers and language education research. That is, our efforts to support educators and their research efforts ultimately bear fruit only when learners benefit. If we don't keep this ultimate purpose in mind, then our activities will be literally self-centered, as they will serve our egos more than learners or the larger society we live in. Thus, by holding ourselves to the high standard of promoting excellence, and by constantly reminding ourselves of that standard and why it exists, I'm sure we'll be even more successful in serving educators and learners in our next 39 years.

In closing, if your affiliate doesn't yet have a mission statement, I urge you to go through the extremely beneficial process of identifying and adopting one. In addition to the discussion above, I believe the TESOL mission statement would be useful as you start your mission statement drafting journey:

"TESOL International Association’s mission is to advance professional expertise in English language teaching and learning for speakers of other languages worldwide."

I think this mission statement helps us see how we can, individually and in concert, help TESOL achieve its worthy mission. Good luck in your efforts to advance professional expertise in English language teaching and learning, and to create a better world through your activities as a TESOL affiliate!


Kevin Cleary moved to Japan from the United States in 1991 and was the associate professor of English in the International Exchange Center of Tokyo Medical and Dental University (TMDU). At TMDU he taught ESP classes, primarily to graduate students, and supported the school's international outreach efforts. He has written 14 ESL textbooks, mostly on science-related topics, with various Japanese publishers. Before becoming JALT president in 2010, he served as treasurer and membership chair at the chapter level and as the JALT director of treasury (2008–2010). This was Kevin's last article as he passed away earlier this year. His Obituary can be found here

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