Core Beliefs and Values
Many of our School’s parents attended a talk I gave this week featuring this presentation. At the heart of my remarks was the compelling story of how, over the course of the last three years, we have arrived at six “core values” that we will begin to use with our students and with our community over the course of this year. More than the beginnings of a “character education” program, these core values really do, in my mind at least, articulate who we are and how we seek to “influence” the culture in which our children are growing up.
That culture, or climate as the presentation calls it, proves to be a tough nut to crack these days. We (and our children) live in what author Kevin Ford has called the “Experience Economy,” where the same cup of coffee our grandparents bought for three cents is now five dollars and three cents and where “build to suit” has supplanted “built to last.” Ford suggests that this culture challenges us to pay top dollar for an “experience” the more thrilling, daring, provocative, or entertaining it might be. Hence the rise of info-tainment, religio-tainment, and (yes) edu-tainment.
We have to influence this climate, I believe, because along with the “tasks” we assign our children, these are the two most significant “variables” that influence learning. Cognitive psychologists and brain researchers alike cite these two forces—tasks and climate—as the essential variables that will predict most significantly whether our children will advance through their formative years with any “formation” at all. These same scientists tell us that the tasks we assign our kids have to have clarity, relevance, and the opportunity for success while, at the same time, the climates in which we assign them have to be comfortable, accepting, and safe. Schools tend to be pretty good with tasks—they are, after all, part of the expectation we all have of what will happen as a result of the school day. Tasks to elicit and reinforce learned content and skills are dutifully mastered under the watchful eyes of teachers during the school day, and then our sons and daughters are sent home with additional tasks to accomplish just as dutifully after the school day is over. While we are always evolving in our thinking about the nature, frequency, or importance of these tasks, I think we can all agree that they are necessary and that our children need to take them seriously.
A similar level of agreement is not always possible when it comes to climate, which is why establishing norms like mission statements and core values are so important for institutions like ours.
At the heart of the climate that we are trying to build and reinforce here at PS are what I am going to call our three core beliefs and our six core values. First the beliefs. We proudly tout our mission and say with equal pride that it is “countercultural” in the best sense of that word. “Family, School, and Church United in the Education and Support of Each Child” has been essential to the ethos of this School since it was founded and will continue to describe what we do every day far into the future. It runs counter to a world climate in which the three institutions it mentions—the Family, the School, and the Church—have regularly and tragically failed to support or educate children for a very long time. At the heart of this mission is the core belief of trust—that is, there is an implicit trust that exists in the bond that unites us, and there is an explicit trust that exists in the aspiration that we can work together for the sake and advancement of our children. We believe in a climate and a culture rooted in trust.
Evidence of our second core belief comes from one of the ten objectives of the School written, like the mission statement, at our founding: “To help children develop a positive sense of self-confidence, self-worth, and security so that they will be able to stand up for what they believe and take risks throughout their lives.” Risk is at the heart of education. If we are willing to let our children (and ourselves) stretch and push then, along the way, we will come to appreciate that, by accepting the challenges of going too far—to paraphrase T.S. Eliot—we discover how very far we can go. We believe in a climate and a culture that embraces and encourages taking developmentally appropriate risks.
Finally, our third core belief is more a philosophy than a value: earnestly striving for our personal best each and every time we encounter a task or a challenge or a struggle will produce more lasting results than trying to be the “best of the best” every time out. We believe that this commitment to “be our best” is supported by our theme line of Confidence in every Child and is exemplified poignantly in the philosophy statement on the home page of our Athletics website: “Our singular focus in athletics reflects the same growth mindset that we espouse in our classrooms and is elicited by these two simple questions: (1) Did I give my absolute best for my team today? (2) Am I getting better every time I lace up my shoes, my cleats, or my spikes? As a Panther, maximum effort and constant improvement make winning and losing irrelevant.” We believe in a climate and a culture that promotes each child’s personal best.
These core beliefs promote a school climate that we hope is preparing the child for the path rather than preparing the path for the child. “Helicopter” parents have given way to “lawnmower” parents in a culture that seeks to prevent hardship, adversity, or even mild discomfort from cluttering the paths our children tread toward adulthood. To be sure, the motivation behind preparing the path for the child is the sincere desire on the parts of my generation of parents to provide better lives for our children than the ones we had. However, if we are honest with ourselves—and I include myself in the “lawnmower” cult—by eliminating from our children’s lives any chance for failure, we simultaneously eliminate the chance to learn, grow, or assert the all-important autonomy we hope they achieve prior to having children of their own. By fostering a climate that is rooted in trust, that embraces risk, and that seeks personal best, we believe the partnership we have with parents will prepare their children very well for the many paths they will encounter in their lives.
As we have become more adept at understanding and articulating these fundamental beliefs, our institutional core values have presented themselves very naturally. At our concluding full faculty meeting last year, we presented our teachers with an enlarged version of our window logo and a list of sixteen values accompanied by passages from Scripture. With these in hand and separated in diverse groups, faculty were asked to complete a simple task: fill the panes of the window with those words and Scriptures representing what they felt were the core values of the School. The only caveat at the beginning of the exercise was that the half-circle pane at the base and center of the window needed to house the central core value of the institution. What resulted was, very simply, the most productive and engaging faculty meeting I’ve been a part of during my career in education. Faculty and staff alike took the task of identifying our climate very seriously and, at the end of two hours, asked very sincerely to have more time to create something excellent and authentic.
We identified a group of folks who would work over the summer, and after meeting several times here is what they developed:
It’s not surprising that respect forms the “core” of our window. The motto of the School (“As children of God at Presbyterian School, we respect ourselves, each other, and the environment.”) is focused on respect, while at the same time the climate our children are coming of age in lacks this fundamental attribute more and more each day. “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am” have been replaced by “Uh-huh” and “Yeah” in classrooms, on athletic fields, and at homes throughout our community representing a very small metaphor of the slippery slope that we in education are loath to slide down.
Over the course of this year and into the future, we will work with more intent and purpose to focus our culture and our children’s interaction with it on this central tenet of respect. At the same time, we will use the other five values to support and extend our respect-based climate. Teachers and advisers have all received windows to hang in their classrooms. They are using the months of August and September to define respect with their students and to incorporate the words by pointing out respectful behavior. During the rest of this year, at each monthly faculty meeting, we will introduce the next core value from the window. Together as a faculty and staff, we will define these values and brainstorm activities around them. We feel that the collective creativity will result in the best ideas for implementation. We appreciate your partnership and welcome your feedback.
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