Elaine L. Lindy documents the process and benefits of creating a set of core values at any school. Included: Tips for helping your school team develop a dynamic list of core values.
This article originally appeared in the Character Education Center's free online newsletter, Values in Action, on the Web at www.ethicsusa.com. Reprinted with permission.
When I arrived to collect my 7-year-old from her after-school program one day, many youngsters were gathered on the playing field to admire a fabulous rainbow arching across the sky. After a while, the rainbow faded. The children and the after-school teachers turned around and returned to their regularly scheduled activities.
In a similar way, many educators and parents gather to admire the beauty of the notion of values in the school. Then, after a while, the beauty of the moment fades and all return to the ongoing demands of school life.
How can educators make values last? How can they bring the beauty of the goal of holding laudable values such as compassion, persistence, and responsibility from outside the framework of the school day to a phenomenon that thrives within it?
There are no simple answers, only a tapestry of individual school experiences.
For more than five years, I have chaired the Core Values Committee of the Cabot Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. Our committee is composed of our school's principal, Marilynne Quarcoo, teachers, and parents. When I came to the committee, parents and teachers had already identified three core values:
(1) Becoming Lifelong Learners,
(2) Respect for Self and Others, and
(3) Commitment to School and Community.
From the outset, our challenge was how to weave our stated core values into the fabric of school life. "Core values allow the school community to remain focused on what's important," says Quarcoo. "They provide a mirror for our decision making, and they provide a guide and reason for our actions and behaviors."
Here are some approaches that worked for us. They may work for you.
Nearly ten years ago, the principal, teachers, and parents at the Cabot School, over an extensive process (or so I heard, since it occurred before I entered the school system), identified three core values. Concomitant to that, all public schools in Massachusetts in 1991 were mandated to formulate a strategy of core values.
Since that time, we've found some unexpected benefits to having articulated our school's core values.
Jodi Escalante, a kindergarten teacher at our school, was the first to coin the phrase "default position" relative to the benefits of core values in the classroom. "As a teacher, I'm frequently called upon to make decisions, resolve conflicts, work through dilemmas, or problem-solve in other ways," said Escalante. "Having core values gives me a consistent direction. It removes 'my opinion' from the equation, substituting a default position, a previously agreed-to authority. If a solution promotes a core value, it is acceptable."
As a parent, I too soon found that having a default position accessible was just as handy a tool at home. One frenzied morning, my then 7-year-old cried, "Why do I have to brush my hair? Why does it matter anyway?" As I fruitlessly searched for a plausible answer, a worry tugged at the corners of my mind: "You know her hair will only get mussed in the course of the day. ..." Almost without thinking, I grabbed onto this explanation: "Because brushing your hair shows respect for yourself, and 'Respect for Self and Others' is one of the core values of the Cabot School!"
Thankfully, the phrase had popped to mind, if only because I had memorized it. And so, in the flailing of the moment, our core values had provided me a safe landing ground.
Thus, our two-dimensional core values, painted on a poster in the main lobby, have come alive within the subconscious of teachers and parents walking throughout our school.
Transforming a school to exemplify an array of core values is, indeed, a daunting task. Better to divvy up the task into smaller, more manageable pieces.
At the Cabot Elementary School, we first decided to focus on one core value each year. Though we remain conscious of all our core values, the core value on rotation receives special emphasis.
At the nearby Angier Elementary School, parents and teachers identified five core values, which they also spotlight in turn. These core values, listed below, are "at the heart of Angier."
H ave Courage
T ake Responsibility
A different approach is to focus each year on a certain arena of school life. The challenge here is to brainstorm how the dynamic that occurs within that arena can be improved to reflect core values. The arenas may be physical places, such as the bathrooms, cafeteria, hallways, homeroom, or playground. Or you might prefer to concentrate on procedural arenas, such as class routines, conflict resolution, curriculum, student reward systems, or traditions and ceremonies.
At the Cabot Elementary School, however, we found that one year hasn't been enough time for a given core value; without fail, we've extended an initial year devoted to a given core value to a second year. With two years devoted to each of our three core values, a student is immersed in core values activities throughout the elementary school experience from kindergarten to grade five.
Not to be underestimated for its impact on students is the public posting of work by other students. Take advantage of any chance you have to display writing assignments, art projects, holiday work (such as for Martin Luther King Day) that ties to your school's core values.
At the Cabot Elementary School, each year the fifth grade gives a gift to the school as a departing gesture. Several years ago we provided the fifth graders a banner showing the three core values of our school and asked each student to write his or her interpretation of them on attached fabric triangles, later attached to the bottom of the banner. The banner is now on permanent display in our main lobby. Here's a sampling of comments from the students:
Listen to your heart.
When someone is in trouble, never turn your back on them.
If you want friends, be yourself.
Remember that everyone has different talents.
Never stop learning.
Do your best at everything at school.
If you have to walk the race, walk it but never give up.
Don't exclude people just because you're not great friends with them.
Life is short, use time well.
For a while, a floor-to-ceiling papier-mch tree was secured to the wall in our main lobby. Once, when we were spotlighting the core value Becoming Lifelong Learners, we asked each student at the beginning of the school year to write on a red cutout of an apple a single goal of something she or he would like to learn that year. That spring, we asked each student to identify on a white cutout of an apple blossom one learning goal he or she had achieved. The beauty of this approach was that as students searched to find their own apple or blossom displayed on the tree, they inevitably read a number of other students' goals as well. Thus, they couldn't help but be struck with the collective nature of the effort.
Making values last is an aim that, challengingly, reaches a moving target. Each year, one grade graduates and a new class of kindergartners and parents enter. You might plan for this by sharing the school's core values with new entrants. Distribute to incoming kindergarten parents, during the springtime orientation, flyers that explain the school's core values. Discuss in the first few parent-teacher meetings in the fall the history and goals of the school's core values. Be sure that new hires, including lunchroom monitors, librarians, janitors, school nurses, as well as teaching staff, are conversant with your school's core values.
At the same time, with new entrants come a fresh source of energies and ideas. It may well evolve that a consensus of core values that had been formed by parents or teachers no longer with the school may be rewritten to reflect the priorities of an ever-reshaping school community. That, thankfully, ensures that the most important quality of the core values experience -- the quality of dynamism -- is built into the equation. Only when the individuals who are expressing the core values in their own hearts believe in the underlying concepts will they become forces that move that lovely rainbow admired outside into a transforming experience that lasts within your school's walls.
Elaine L. Lindy
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