This summer, Scott Pardi, a teacher at Gamble Montessori high school, where I am the principal, called me.
“Jack, can I rewrite Gamble’s core values?”
Scott was part-way through his Montessori certification classes. I understood immediately. He was taking Structure and Organization, and was working on specific artifacts to help manage daily issues in his classroom. His was not an existential question, a core values question per se. I knew what he meant. He was fine with our values: Community, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect. They are posted throughout our school, on the letterhead and elsewhere. In the classroom, each word has a description created to help students understand the core value. These are legacy descriptions, handed down from our school’s first set of teachers, created on our school’s first ever retreat.
The descriptions are generally fine, with one really awkward exception. In this paragraph, the school is symbolically a hand, and every part contributes to the work. The unfortunate phrasing is “each joint supplies …” I can quote the rest but it is immaterial. You see the problem, right? Especially in a room full of adolescents, in an era of debate over the legalization of marijuana. “Each joint supplies …” could send a student off on an awkward and unproductive tangent. Yes, he could change the descriptions!
Upon telling him that, I also quickly drew a red line, to give him the guidance he sought and to make clear where experience and research told me we could not go: the five values must stay the same. He could rewrite the awkward descriptions. It was important that the values remain constant and consistent across the school. This is explained later in this article. However, the descriptions could – and should – be the subject of continual revision and conversation.
Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.
He had started the work already, anticipating my answer, and started to read one of the proposed descriptions to me. He paused self-consciously in the middle and said he needed to wordsmith it, starting to apologize. I stopped him mid-apology. I reassured him that the most important thing was that he was grappling with the meaning of the core values for him, and for implementation in his classroom. He was internalizing them and making them his own. It was impossible to ask more from him in that moment.
Many schools and other organizations have core values. Some call them beliefs. Some embed them in a vision or mission statement and some, like us, separate the three: mission, vision, core values. Gamble Montessori’s values, Community*, Hard Work, Learning, Peace, Respect, were “borrowed” from Clark Montessori, our older sister school, as we attempted to model our program on their success. In Cincinnati Public Schools we have occasionally been encouraged to develop a core set of values, often as part of the Positive Behavior Interventions work that we cycle through regularly. Down the street, our closest high school neighbor, Dater High School, asserts, “At Dater High School we …. Work Hard, Love to Learn, Never Quit, Care, Prepare for the Future.” Pleasant Ridge Montessori, another of the public Montessori elementary schools in Cincinnati, proudly proclaims “PRM ROCKS”, which seems to suggest 5 core values. However, their core values are Respect, Ownership, Kindness, Safety. (Yes, they are aware that this is really “ROKS”!)
These examples point to the obvious truth about core values: the most important thing is to have them. There are no wrong core values, except for the ones you don’t have.
That said, there are a few rules you must follow if you wish to develop core values for your school or organization. The process can be flexible but must meet these three criteria.
- Create your core values cooperatively. Deciding what you are about as a group requires a group effort. Mottos, visions, and core values passed down from on high, or from years and years earlier, carry less weight than a shared vision developed together. This does not mean that legacy values and mottos are useless. However, if you are starting from zero, the process of discussing, defining, and articulating your values as an organization increases buy-in and ownership.
- Select a manageable number of core values. The examples I include in this article all consist of four or five core values. If you go fewer than that, you run the risk of missing large swaths of behaviors that occur in your school on a given day. If you go much beyond five or six, you dilute your message and they become meaningless or overlapping. This does not mean overlap is necessarily the enemy. Too many “core” values is a problem.
- State them positively. This rule is true about all sets of rules, including core values and mission and vision statements. Give people something to live in to, something to become. Many teachers create sets of rules for their classes that define what you can’t do: “Don’t leave your seat without permission,” “don’t interrupt others,” or “don’t talk without raising your hand” are some examples. Stating the expectations positively sends a message of opportunity rather than the message of limitation set by these negative examples. The Dater High School example above is an exemplar of positively stated core values, for instance “Work Hard” provides a clear directive to a person.
The purpose of core values is to instill in the group a common sense of purpose and meaning. Earlier I used the phrase “drew a red line” to describe my reaction to a change in the core values in Scott’s classroom, while allowing him to change the descriptions. This is because as a school, we are invested in setting clear boundaries for our adolescents. These boundaries and expectations, when repeatedly reinforced over time and throughout our spaces, become instinctive and ingrained in us. This is not because our core values are infallible. In reality, the absolute best core values are the ones you have. Whatever they are.
Even better than the core values you have? The ones you use. Those are the perfect core values.
How does one “use” core values? Below is a starter list of ways to saturate your school with your core values, to reinforce and teach them multiple ways.
Post them in the classroom
Placing attractive and legible versions of the core values in a prominent place in the classroom helps provide a framework for the expectations in your classroom. This is strengthened if the values are posted throughout the school, and as they are utilized in the additional steps below.
Use them in your classroom and building rules
Relating each of your classroom and building rules to the core values, perhaps using each value as a “header” with specific rules beneath it, you move toward several important goals. First, you justify each procedure or rule as belonging to a larger structure of rules, giving each a raison d’être. Second, it helps students categorize each expectation, which in turn aids their memory and makes it more likely that the rules will be remembered and followed.
Place them throughout the staff manual and the student handbook
Core values can help serve as an organizational structure for your handbooks. Much like with the classroom rules, using them as an organizer helps justify rules and expectations. Placing them here also ensures that they will be seen at least once a year as you review the expectations with you staff and they, in turn, review the expectations with their students.
Include them in student reflection forms [LINK]
At Gamble, we use reflection on misbehavior as a way to reteach appropriate behavior and help a student understand why they misbehaved. Asking a student to relive an experience later and find different solutions helps provide them with resources and “experiences” to make better decisions in the future. The Gamble reflection form requires the student to identify one or more values that were violated that prompted the need for a reflection. Redirecting students to the core values not only serves as a reminder of the rules, but it also helps them understand that the rules serve a purpose other than providing an annoying roadblock to doing whatever one pleases. Instead, behavior is understood to need to match these easily remembered values. A student in a future new situation is likely to remember one of the core values and apply it to improve their behavior. This is a much better strategy for teaching behavior than trying to imagine the countless permutations of behaviors throughout the school and to teach each individual scenario.
In student commitment forms [LINK]
Many schools ask students and parents to make a series of commitments as they enter the school or progress through to new teams. This is certain to include following the rules and not committing certain infractions. It may also address doing work of a certain quality and exhibiting exemplary behavior. Using the core values in this document, especially in combination with the other places above, helps send a unified message to students.
Use them on your school letterhead and other public sites
Part of your saturation process means using the core values in correspondence other than just with teachers and students. message you send outside the school is important too. Showing partners and parents and others that you have a thorough commitment to your values sends a message that a school has thought about what it expects from students. In Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the habits is “beginning with the end in mind.” Espousing these views of the values we hope for a graduate to possess is powerful. Placing them on public documents is an attractive trait to parents who might have to wade through a wide range of school choices, or might be seeking reassurance that their only choice is a good one. Seeing that your school seeks to instill important values in your child builds confidence and trust.
You and your school have accepted the mission to educate a child beyond mere standardized tests and common standards. Adopting and using core values as a guide and structure for the teaching of behaviors and habits helps create a shorthand for achieving your loftiest goals. The work is not simple, for sure, but it is made simpler by providing an agreed-upon framework of common core values.
Something was in the air this summer. Soon after talking with Scott Pardi about his edits to our core values descriptive paragraphs, Josh Vogt, a veteran teacher at Gamble, brought them up too. Josh is in the important role of Montessori Coordinator. He expressed frustration that our core values are the same as our sister school – we had not written them ourselves. He had written some new possible values down on a sheet of paper, but he wasn’t quite happy with them. Our conversation ranged over a couple of days until a summer meeting where he appeared to have reached an important breakthrough.
“I’ve got them,” he announced, with seriousness.
“Yes, the new core values.” He held up a list of hand-written words and phrases on a lined sheet of paper. It was long. “I just need you to approve them.” He gestured as if handing the paper to me to sign, offering me his pen. There were a couple of columns of values, one of which carried over to the back.
“Long list.” I observed.
“One hundred and six.”
“One hundred and six?”
“Or thereabouts,” he conceded. “Some of them feel a bit redundant. Might be about 100 though.”
“Sounds like you’ve covered everything.”
“I believe I have,” he nodded modestly. “It’s all in there. Honesty, Trustworthiness, Caring for others. Bravery.” He pointed at the list as he said each one. “All the important ones.”
He was right, and it underscored an important point for me. The best core values are the ones you have, and even better are the ones you use. Almost everything he had written down could plausibly be a core value at a reputable school. But the list was so long! I suggested, “I think we might need to simplify a bit.”
“Simplify?” he asked.
“Yes, this seems a bit excessive. You know, in an age of electronics.”
“Oh? … Hmm. I see what you’re saying.” He took the list back. When I saw him later that afternoon I had almost forgotten our conversation.
“I’ve got it.” He pronounced.
“The solution to our core values. I have them. Final version”
“Already?” I was surprised. “Final version?” I was remembering the long list and imagining how he could have winnowed it down to five or six.
“Yes.” He paused dramatically. “Emoji’s.”
“Yes, and we will only need five: smiley face, frog, 100%, American flag, honey pot.”
“The kids will understand it?” I asked.
He nodded reassuringly, “Oh yeah.”
“But will we?”
“We can learn.”
What are your school’s core values? We would love it if you could include them in the comments below.
* Here and throughout the article I capitalize core values. The English teacher in me cringes. However, I think it is important to note that core values are proper nouns because they play a powerful role in a school, and therefore merit this capitalization.