Summer Rewind: How to Create
School Core Values with Your Teachers Without Drama and Chaos


Note: School Leadership Reimagined is produced as a podcast and designed to be listened to, not read. We strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

You're listening to School Leadership Reimagined episode number 117

Welcome to the school leadership re-imagined podcast where we rethink what's possible to transform your school if you're tired of settling for small wins and incremental improvement, then stay tuned to discover powerful and practical strategies for getting every teacher in your school moving towards excellence. Now here's your host, Robyn Jackson.

Hey Builders,

Welcome to another episode of the school leadership reimagined podcast. I'm your host, Robyn Jackson. And we are continuing our summer rewind series today by revisiting Episode 44. Now this episode is all about how to create core values. And I thought it was a really good episode to revisit, because so many builders are thinking about establishing core values as a part of the beginning of the school year. Here's what I'm going to caution you against. Many of you are thinking, Oh, we'll do it during pre service week. But that's a horrible time to start thinking about core values. And I'll tell you why. Most of the time your teachers are just back, they're anxious to get into their classrooms, they're thinking about the year ahead. And it's a difficult time to make that switch between kind of planning for the year ahead and doing the deep thinking that's required by the core values.

My advice is get everybody established and get the school year started. 

Start out by sharing your your vision and and even engaging people in conversations around your mission. But save the core values work until after the first month of school after people have been established after people have have gotten their footing, especially this year. Because for so many teachers, this is the first time that they're going to be returning to full five day instruction with all of their students. So I know you may be anxious to start core values. But if you could wait just a moment, give your teachers a chance to get reestablished and then relaunch that core values conversation at the end of September, maybe beginning of October, that would be great. So whenever you're ready to start that core values conversation, this episode is going to really help you and also this episode comes with a free download, we have a step by step guide that you can download at mine steps that talks about how to overcome a toxic school culture through your core values. So just go to mind steps, you'll have to scroll down the page and look for where there's a download there that will take you step by step through the entire process. So without any further ado, let's re listen to Episode 44, which is all about how to establish your school core values. Okay, are you ready to dive in? Now, at the beginning of this episode, I started telling you about how we had some issues at my school when I was a brand new AP. And the principal said I really think it comes down to core values. And I was really, really resistant to doing a core values exercise the way that I had traditionally done where you just kind of identify core values, like our core values are respected, and loyalty and love and honesty and you know all these kind of adjectives that don't really mean anything. And so I push back with the principal and I said, if we're going to do this, if we're going to spend time, doing core values, when we have these bigger issues going on the core values have to actually mean something.

So we sat down and we designed a process and it looked a little bit like this first thing we did is we realize that we couldn't go to the entire staff off the app, the first path, if you did that, then you would have a whole bunch of vocal people kind of speaking up, and the rest of the people would be silent. And the conversation would go just like every other conversation we ever had at a staff meeting went. So we didn't want that. So we decided that instead of going to the whole staff first we would meet with people in small groups. And we decided to meet with people on grade level teams. We were a middle school and we were purely teams. So we said okay, we're going to meet with people on small teams and talk to them about their core values. The second obstacle we faced was that we didn't want to just ask the group, what should our school core values be? Because we knew we would get you know, things like, you know, we'll it should be respect or it should, it should be honesty or it should be excellence, and those things were pretty fuzzy and they weren't potent enough to really address some of the challenges that we were facing as a school. We wanted people to talk about core values in terms Have non negotiables, what should be non negotiable at our school. And so we wanted to facilitate a conversation where we could get at the truth behind people's core values. Because when people say respect, they mean something. But it's really hard to get at what they really mean by respect. And one person's version of respect doesn't match somebody else's version of respect, they're different.

We wanted to get people to the heart of what they really meant. 

So when we sat down with these small groups of people, we did not ask them what our school core values should be. Instead, we facilitated a conversation around what they hoped students would take away from their time at our school, what kind of education they wanted their students to have, what they wanted the culture to be like and feel like. And instead of asking those questions directly, because when you ask those questions directly, you tend to get a lot of complaints when people talk about what the culture isn't, or what the education isn't, or what isn't happening for kids right now. All we tried to do is put them in the future and imagine a better reality. So what we asked them was something like this, imagine that you are at your retirement ceremony. And the students that you have right now come back and they speak on your behalf. What is it that you hope they will say about their time with you in your classroom? Let's see what that question does. It's it, it gets people out of the complaints and gets to the real heart desire. And people said things like, well, I want my students to feel supported. I want my students to say that I was tough, but fair, I want my students to say that, that I really challenged them in the classroom, and I expose them to things that they wouldn't have seen otherwise. And people started to really think about what it was that they really wanted for kids. And, and as they talked, we just wrote these things on the board. We charted them out. And then we have another question we asked. Imagine that the students you have right now have gathered here and 25 years for their 25th reunion. What is it that you hope they'll say about their time in the school? And people said, Well, I hope they'll say that they made lifelong friends. I hope they'll say that they felt supported and nurtured. I hope they'll say that, what they learned here, they still use in their lives today, and that the education they got was a quality sound education.

Then we talked about what that meant for people and, and we charted all this down. After we had that conversation, then we were ready to talk about core values. And we started talking about the core values with that were inherent and what people were saying they wanted their kids to feel or experience in the school. And we came up with things like lifelong learning. But what do we mean by lifelong learning, it was more than just I want kids to be lifelong learners period, it was really about the idea that we taught kids how to learn at our school. And because we taught them how to learn, they continue to learn throughout their lives. It was about kids wanting to learn on their own, even when it wasn't going to be on the test. We talked about inspiring kids and and helping kids grow and meet their potential. And what did it mean? Well, we found out that for us, it meant that we wanted our students to understand what their unique talents and gifts were, and find ways to use them to make a big contribution to the world. Now we're getting at our core values. Anyway, we did that in small groups. And again, if you want the exact questions that we use, it's in the ebook that I'm going to tell you about at the end of this episode, so you can get the exact questions that we used. But we did that with the small groups. And then once we have visited every single grade level team, and then we worked with the cafeteria workers, the bus drivers, the maintenance staff, the security staff, the main office staff, we asked everybody who touched our children to be involved in that process. And then we came back and we had a staff meeting. And we took the notes that we got from those groups where each group kind of settled on three core values that they could all agree upon together, we took the three core values that came out of each small group. And we posted them on the wall throughout the the cafeteria where we were having our staff meeting. And then we gave everybody three stickers. And we told them as you come in, we'd like for you to read the core values that came out of all of the meetings that we had in the small meetings. And then you have three stickers, the core values that are most resonant to you.

Those are the core values that we want you to put a sticker by. 

If you find one that really resonates you can put more than one sticker you can use all your three stickers on that one or you can find three separate ones and put your stickers there. But once you've spent your three stickers, we'd like you to take a seat and then we're gonna have a conversation. So people did that. And then we had a conversation we looked at where the energy was around the room, what things had the most stickers and Watch core values had zero stickers beside, we cross those out because people didn't find those to be the most resonant with them. And then the ones with the most stickers, we looked at those and we said, Are there any that we can combine? Is this one saying the same thing is this one? We have a lot of energy around this, what does it really mean? And we have these really meaningful, rich conversations around those core values. We didn't always agree there was a lot of pushback. And whenever I talked to people about, you know, doing this core values exercise, people always say, Well, wait a minute, you know, what if teachers push back, what if teachers pick core a core value that that I don't want? Well, here's the thing, the vision belongs to you. But the core values, they belong to everybody. So the roles during this conversation were these, number one, everybody had a voice. That's why everybody got a sticker and could exercise their voices in the sticker, everybody got to participate. My voice was no didn't count more than anybody else's voice in the room, just because I was an administrator, everybody had equal voice, which meant that there were times when I disagreed, and I could say something. But then there were also times when other people disagreed with me, and they had a voice as well. So that at the end, we all had to agree. So everybody had a voice.

The second rule was that everybody had a veto, which meant that when we came to a core value, and we were coming close to saying this is going to be a non negotiable in our school, we went around the room. And we went from every single person to person and we said, Can you support this being a non negotiable in our school? And the person said, No, we stopped. Now I know that's scary. A lot of people were saying, Well, what about the teacher? That's the saboteur, what about the teacher? That's always argumentative? What about the teacher? Who never has anything good to say, what about those teachers? And I get it, it's scary. But remember, if the core values don't belong to everybody, if everybody doesn't support your core values, then what good are they? The whole point about making core values non negotiable is that everybody agrees that they're non negotiable. So don't get nervous when people say no, I can't support that instead, that lets you know, the conversation needs to continue. So whenever I get to that point, when I'm working with teachers, or coaching principles on how to do this with their, their own staff, whenever you get to the point where someone says, nope, I can't support it, then you stop and you say, okay, that's fine. Help us understand what is it about this that you can't support, and you let people talk, and then you let the conversation go, it is not your job to convince people that this is a good core value, or that this is important, or that this is non negotiable.

Everybody has to come to agreement. 

So if you can't come to agreement and one staff meeting, fine, stop the meeting, have everybody think about it, continue the conversations offline, come back and have the conversation again, and you keep having the conversation until you get 100% agreement. It could take one staff meeting, it might take two staff meetings. If you're like us, it took us two months before we had 100% agreement. And I see most schools take two to three months to get to that point. And people say, Well, I don't have two or three months. Well guess what, if you force those core values down people's throat, if you truncate this process, if you rush the process, then your core values are going to be meaningless in the end. And what you want are core values that are truly non negotiable. And here's why. If everybody agrees to those core values, if you go around the room, and without forcing people, everybody says yes, that is non negotiable. And you make that something that is non negotiable. schoolwide you don't have to police people at this point, because everybody has committed to the same core values. So when people are performing in ways that are out of alignment with the core values, you don't have to police them, other people will call them out. And when you do have to have conversations with people, because they are out of alignment with the core values, those conversations aren't difficult conversations at all. You simply point out the behavior. You say, now I was in the room with you. You agreed This is the core value could support and yet your behavior right now is out of alignment. So what's going on? And so it's so much easier to help people be accountable, and to have those accountability conversations when you have a set of core values that everybody's agreed to. If you don't do that, when you sit people down and say hey, listen, your behavior is out of alignment with our core values. They can cross their arms and say, Well, I never agreed to those core values in the first place. That's why you need 100% agreement. And here's something else.

When you give everybody a voice and you give everybody a veto. Whoa, when you don't shove core values down people's throats, the conversations that you have, the things that come up, can heal your culture. I've seen it happen, sometimes you think your culture is going the wrong way. And when you have these core values conversations you start talking about, okay, so what would it look like if this were non negotiable in our school, people's issues come up, people start talking about things that are that have been bubbling under the surface for a long time. And I've been creating pockets of toxicity in your culture, you can have those conversations, you can bring those issues to light, and you can resolve them. You see, leaders are worried about maintaining control. But builders know that control is an illusion to begin with, you're not controlling anything, that's what builders do is, instead of trying to maintain control, what they do is facilitate the real conversations with people so that people willingly abide by those core values once they agree to them, because they own them. You can't own the core values, as long as they are your core values, your staff doesn't have to be accountable to them, when they are their core values, you and everybody else is accountable to them in ways that make it so that people do the right thing, even when you are not looking. So you're going to have to be brave here, and you're going to have to trust the process. And I know it's hard because we're not used to it. Because we've seen people do real prophecies in the past. And the reason they're able to derail the processes is because we've been trying to control them. These are your core values, they belong to the entire staff. So when people derail a process, they had to derail themselves.

Trust the process. 

When you let your staff own the core values, when you make them something that everybody equally owns and is equally accountable to it changes your culture, it builds trust, it builds rapport, it surfaces issues that have been lurking below the surface and threaten your ability to move forward towards your vision and your mission. And when you go through this process, as difficult and sometimes messy as it is, I promise you on the other side, everybody has clarity. Everybody is accountable. Everybody has focus, and everybody starts trusting each other. Because you went first, because you demonstrated that you trusted your staff enough not to try to control this process. But you trusted your staff enough to be able to engage in the process in a meaningful way, and come out with core values that really matter. I don't know if you've ever listened to the episode with Kevin, it's a bonus episode. And Kevin talks about going through the core values exercise with his staff. And one of the things he says is that when he was doing this, he started out saying I don't think I can work with a staff that doesn't see respect as a core value. And yet, in the conversation with his staff, they didn't believe that respect was a non negotiable. And at first, he was kind of taken aback. But the more they discussed it, the more of the staff explained their point, the more he was able to let go and see their side. And now he has a set of core values that he vehemently believes that, but not only him, his entire staff believes in and they've all made it so much a part of the fabric of their school that everything they do in our school is aligned to those core values and the change that it's made them his culture has been radical. And the same thing happens time and time again, people come to builder's lab, they learn this core values process. We coach them through doing it with their school, and then they report back, I can't believe the shift that it's made in my culture. So you have to trust the process. Everybody gets a voice. Everybody gets a veto. And the third rule is you keep talking until you have 100% agreement, whether that takes you a month, or two months, or if you have a lot of deep seated issues in your school, it may take you the whole school year.

So what at the end of it, there's healing at the end of it, there's alignment. At the end of it, there's clarity, and it's worth fighting for. Because once you go through this process, and I tell you I was I was reluctant and resistant and when it was dragging on in the middle of it. I was like Good grief. I'm so sick of talking about core values. But at the end of the road it changed our whole school culture. Our school culture was not the same in our school became it was already a good place to work. It became a great place to work. We have so much alignment so much focus so much energy around our goals that we were able to move together as one if there was no more backbiting and fighting and slipping and sniping at each other. There were no more back channel conversations and undercurrents and and you know, moods and feelings and feelings being heard and teat sucking an eye rolling all that went away. Now everybody had clarity, we were all dealing with each other straight. And guess what else, because I trusted them, they trusted me. Because I trusted them in that meeting, they stopped questioning me on every single decision that I made. Instead, they trusted that I would do things that were in alignment with the core values, and that if I didn't, they could call me on it. So stop having people policing what I was doing. And I stopped policing what they were doing everybody, police themselves.

Everybody was accountable to the set of core values. 

So step one, you've got to unearth the real core values, not the fake ones that people say what's behind it, have those conversations in small groups so that everybody can be heard number to bring the whole staff together? And start whittling down and saying, Okay, what do we really believe what's really most important to us what is non negotiable, and everybody gets a veto, and a voice, and you don't stop having the conversation until everybody's in agreement. And then number three, you got to make them a lot, you got to live by them. That might mean changing your master schedule. That might mean changing how you hire people, that might mean how you give teachers feedback is going to look different. It's going to mean a change in your disciplinary practices, it's going to mean a change in how you deliver instruction to kids, and how you support kids and how you deal with parents in the community. Your core values, once they are agreed upon, they pervade everything because they are truly non negotiable. And when you do that, when you go through that process, as messy and difficult as it is, on the other side is a whole culture, a healed culture, a culture that's aligned a culture where people enjoy working with each other and trust each other, a culture where everybody's growing.

Most people will never go through this process, most people will feel like they don't have the time, or that they don't have the resources, or they're afraid that somebody is going to derail the process. And they will never go through this process. And for those people, they're cheating themselves. They're cheating themselves, vibrant, alive, thriving culture, those builders out there, you you when you go through this process, when you choose to wade through the messiness of the core values exercise because on the other side, you know, it's going to be worth it. What waits for you on the other side of that mess, is clarity is unity is alignment. It's a group of people who are committed to the same thing. It's, it's it's community, it's it's, it's this vibrant culture, where people enjoy coming to work every day and enjoy working with each other. where everybody is focused on doing the right work the right way, and telling you all it's worth it. 

Hey, if you're ready to get started being a builder right away, then I want to invite you to join us at Buildership University. It's our exclusive online community for builders just like you where you'll be able to get the exact training that you need to turn your school into a success story right now with the people and resources you already have. You'll find our best online courses, live trainings with me tons of resources, templates and exemplars and monthly live office hours with me where you can ask me anything and get my help on whatever challenge you're facing right now. If you're tired of hitting obstacle after obstacle and you're sick of tiny little incremental gains each year, if you're ready to make a dramatic difference in your school right now, then you need to join Buildership University. Just go to and get started writing your school success story today.

Thank you for listening to the School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit

School Leadership Reimagined is brought to you by Mindsteps Inc, where we build master teachers.