What are Your School’s REAL Core Values?


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You're listening to the School Leadership Reimagined Podcast, episode number ​​​​​​nine.

Welcome to the School Leadership Reimagined 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. ​

What’s up Builders! Welcome back to another episode of School Leadership Reimagined podcast. I’m your host, Robyn Jackson and today’s episode is What are your school’s REAL Core values?

I’m not talking about the core values on your wall or in your student handbook. I’m talking about the core values that are actually in place in your school.

There’s a difference.

You see, what we SAY we believe and what we actually do are often different. So today, we’re going to examine what our REAL core values are and how we can leverage them to do everything from hold teachers more accountable, to shape our instructional program, to better communicate with parents and students.

Your Core Values are a largely under-used but powerful secret weapon and today we’re going to uncover and use our Core Values like a builder!

But before we do that, let’s take a moment to thank today’s sponsor. Today’s episode is sponsored by my book Never Underestimate Your Teachers. If you want to know how to move a teacher’s Will and Skill, then this book will take you step-by-step through the process  and show you exactly what you need to do to get ALL of your teachers moving towards mastery. You can get your copy of Never Underestimate Your Teachers by going to mindstepsinc.com/lead.

Okay, let’s dive into today’s content.

Have you ever gone through one of those core values exercises? You know the ones I’m talking about where you get a list of core values like love and loyalty and honesty and truth and you have to check off the ones that are the most important to you.

Then you keep narrowing down your list until you arrive at the 1-3 core values that are most important to you.

So let’s suppose that at the end, your core values are God, Family, and Football. I’m borrowing that from one of my favorite movies The Best Man Christmas in case you’re wondering. One of the main characters said that his core values were God, Family, and Football.

But what does that mean exactly?

I mean, What does that really tell me about who he is and how he makes decisions?

God is a core value for him. Whose God? In what way is God a core value? Do you just believe that there is a God or are do you believe in a particular god?

What about family? Is he saying that he puts his family first? What does that really even mean? I mean it could mean that he wants to take care of his family financially so he works really hard and is never home but he does it so that they can be financially secure. Or, it could mean that he wants to spend as much time as he can with his family so he chooses a job that may not be as lucrative but it gives him more time with his family. Or it could mean something else altogether. I mean which one is it Lance?

Forgive me for talking to a fictional character like he’s real.

And what about football? Forget it.  I’m not going to even touch football. I have no idea what that means. But you get my point right? Those were his core values but they don’t tell us much about what they actually mean to him.

Now as confusing as that is for a movie character, It gets even worse when it comes to school core values. We write these core values statements and then post them on a wall somewhere but what on earth do those core values really mean?

For instance, I once worked with a school whose core values were respect, curiosity, and integrity.

Umm, What does that even mean?

Who knows? Everyone had a different interpretation. Take respect for example. To some respect meant that the students were to be respectful to the teachers but the teachers didn’t have to respect the students. To others, respect was more about respecting oneself. To others, respect meant that students didn’t yell out during class or rough house in the hall.

Everyone had their own understanding of that core value.

So why is that a problem?

If your core values are open to interpretation, if everyone gets to define them based on their lens, their perspective, their beliefs and experiences, then are they even really core values?

And yet so many schools waste tons of time taking people through meaningless core values exercises, throw the finalists on a wall, and then check off the box -- yay! We have core values.

But those core values tend to be impotent from the start. Why? Because they live on the wall and not in the hearts and minds of the people who make up your school culture.

Behaviors don’t change. They have no impact on our decision-making. And what’s more, we often act in ways that directly contradict our core values in our day to day interactions with students and with each others.

I’m just going to go ahead and say it. For many schools, your core values as they exist on the wall or in the handbook are a joke.

We’re not living up to them.

Let me tell you what core values really are. 

Your core values are your non-negotiables. They are the lines over which you will not cross. I often say that if you are not willing to hire or fire someone over it, it isn’t a core value. 

So the idea here is that if you see your core values as non-negotiables, you immediately get clarity about what you mean and you can now use that core value is some really powerful ways. Let me show you what I mean by that.

You see, when most people think about their core values, they choose lofty words like love or loyalty or freedom or service, but as we’ve already discussed, those words alone don’t mean much.

But when you think of your core values as non-negotiables, things change. For instance, a lot of schools have a core value of Life-Long Learning. But what does that really mean?

Well, when you turn the core value of life-long learning into a non-negotiable, it becomes something like:

Every member of our community will be meaningfully engaged in learning opportunities that go beyond the curriculum and the professional learning guidelines of the district.

Or, it might become, Every lesson will culminate in real world connections for students.

Now we know exactly what we mean by life long learning.

Or here’s another example. Suppose your school has a core value of honoring diversity. Well, if you turn it into a non-negotiable, that core value might become we will not make decisions about class placement based on race, gender, or sexual preferences.

Or, it could just as easily become we will always maintain a staff that reflects the diversity of our student population.

See how much more clear that is?

But turning your core values into non-negotiables is about more than just being more clear.

Once you rethink your Core Values this way as non-negotiables, you can now use your Core Values in 4 very powerful ways.

The first way is ​...

you can now use your Core Values as the filter through which you sift every decision you make as a school – from who to hire, to how to manage your master schedule, to how to handle discipline, to what professional learning opportunities you’ll focus on for the year. Everything you do as a school can be filtered through your core values when they are re-written as non-negotiables. That’s because your core values establish boundaries for your school that define your organizational culture and signal to everyone in your school how they should behave, how they should make decisions, and how they will be held accountable.

In my last school, we did this and let me tell you it made a world of difference. We started sifting EV-ER-RY decision through our core values and it gave us such clarity and such purpose!

All those tough decisions we struggled with before suddenly became very clear. How should we structure the master schedule? Easy. What is the structure that best supports our core values?

What should our discipline policy look like? No problem. Our core values made it clear. How do we give teachers feedback? Simple. We give feedback in a way that aligns with and supports our core values.

Here’s what else happened. People stop questioning and fighting the administrative decisions we made. As long as we could defend our decision based on the core values that we had agreed upon as a school, everyone was cool even if they didn’t like the decision.

Here’s what else happened. Teachers stopped distrusting and fighting us. The core values gave our decision making process immediate transparency. In every situation, everyone knew that we were going to make the decision based on our school core values and because we were consistent, the teachers, the parents, and even the students started to trust us.  

In fact it got the point where people would come to my office and make a request and then try to make the case for their point of view by saying, “And this aligns with our core values by …”

When you make your core values non-negotiables, you take all the drama and angst out of decision making. Tough decisions become exponentionally LESS tough because your core values serve as your guide. And, if you consistently apply your non-negotiables to every decision that you make every day, your staff, your parents, and your students will grow to trust you because you consistently apply the school core values to your decision making.

Second, you can use your core values to make hiring decisions.

For instance, as I’ll talk about next time, you can use your core values to shape what interview questions you create, how you rate job candidates, and how you determine who you eventually hire. Instead of looking only at their qualifications, you can examine their core values and look for a fit between their core values and those of your school. Trust me, when you do this, you will hire much better candidates. Like I said, I’m going to go into detail about this specifically next week.

Third, you can use your core values to attract and recruit the right people to be on your staff. 

When your core values are clear you will immediately attract people who share your core values to your school and what’s even more amazing, your core values will repel those who do NOT share your core values. 

Here’s why this is important. If people don’t share the core values of the institution, if they don’t believe in them, they will wreak havoc on your school culture. They will never completely fit in. So it serves you to make your core values very clear from the start so that people know what you stand for as a school and if they don’t agree with that, they can choose to go somewhere else.

Remember how earlier I was telling you that I developed the core value that every student deserved and was capable of highly rigorous instruction? Well soon after several of my colleagues and I started experiencing success with increasing the rigor of our courses and getting more and more students successfully through honors and AP courses. But, there were a couple of people who didn’t belive that all students should and could be successful with rigor.

Except once that core value began to pervade our school, those people started to leave. They started to look for work elsewhere. And, others who were hearing about what we were doing in our school and who wanted to be a part of that work, they began to join our staff.

By making our core values non-negotiables, we were able to attract the right people to work at our school and we began to repel the wrong people for whom our school was no longer a good fit.

The same will happen for you. Once you make your school core values non-negotiables, everyone will clearly know where you stand and they will have to make a choice. Those who don’t share those core values will naturally begin to look for work elsewhere. Those who do believe in your core values will be attracted to your school and be dying to work with you.

Fourth, you can use your core values to hold everyone accountable.

Once everyone agrees on a set of core values, everyone is bound by them. Suddenly, difficult conversations become a lot less difficult because you are simply holding people accountable to something they have already agreed to.

Again, in my last school where I was an administrator, we spent months as a staff turning our core values into non-negotiables. By the time we were done, we had 4 really strong core values around which the entire school came to consensus.

About a month after we agreed to the set of core values, a teacher said something really racist to another teacher in the building about the students. It was so offensive that I cannot repeat it here on this show or you’ll vomit, but trust me, it was bad.

What made it worse was that in general this teacher was a pretty toxic person and in the past, she usually got away with her pretty passive aggressive form of toxicity because no one really wanted to confront her on it. And even if you did confront her, she would act all innocent and claim not to have meant anything by the snarky remark or the passive aggressive things she did.

But once we had agreed as a staff around a set of core values, things changed. So I learned what she had said to this other teacher about the students, I was pretty livid. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking about the school core values. Frankly, I had a few core values of my own that I wanted to teach her.

But once I calmed down and got myself together, I called her into my office.

Two minutes into the conversation, she was getting into her “I was only joking” excuse and I stopped her. I said Joan, let’s call her Joan shall we, I said Joan, even if you were joking, that joke violates our core value of honoring diversity.

She tried again. But I didn’t mean it she protested weakly.

I rolled my eyes inside. She meant it. But rather than get into an argument with her about that, I simply returned to the core values.

It doesn’t matter if you really meant it. Our core values say that we honor diversity. What about what you said was honoring.


She just hung her head.

So I went on. I said, Your words today violated one of our core values and what’s so disappointing to me is that you were a part of the process of developing those core values and you agreed along with everyone else that that was a non-negotiable. No one in this building is allowed to do anything that dishonors anyone else.

Then I asked her, Do you still agree with that?

She nodded and started to cry.

Then joking or not, meaning it or not, you have crossed a line that we agreed as a staff we would not cross. This is not who we are as a school and if you cannot live out that core value in your interactions with students and with your colleagues, then this is not the place for you.

When she heard that she looked up shocked that I had spoken so plainly. I sat there and let her take it all in.

After a moment of heavy silence, I told her to think about it and we would talk later on in the week.

Later that week we met again. She came armed with a written apology to the staff member she said the nasty thing to and I thanked her. Then I shared with her the MOU I had written describing the incident and told her that it would be going in her file.

Then she told me about how she had marched with Dr. King and how she had many black friends blah blah blah and then she started her normal routine of making excuses again.

I stopped her. I repeated the core value and asked her, “Do any of your reasons or excuses that you’ve just offered erase the fact that what you did violated one of our core values?”

She was quiet for a moment and then she whispered, “no.”

Then I don’t want to hear it, I told her.

Then she said, “I’m not a racist.”

At that point, I just shrugged and said, “Then stop saying racist things.” and with that there was really nothing left to say.

Meeting over.

That’s what turning your core values into non-negotiables will do. It gives you clarity and it gives you leg to stand on when you’re holding others accountable. Once you agree as a school on a set of core values and those core values become non-negotiables, conversations that were once difficult become really cut and dry. Excuses evaporate.

Can you see how powerful your core values can become when you rephrase them as non-negotiables?

So how do you turn your core values into non-negotiables?

Well, the good news is that you already have non-negotiables, you just don’t realize that you do. We all have lines that we will not cross. We all have things that are so important to us that we would never think of not doing them. The trick is, we need to spend some time reflecting to suss them out.

The first step is to take out your current set of core values. Now if you don’t have a list of core values for your school, you’ll need to create one and I’ll share my favorite process for creating institutional core values in an upcoming episode. But I suspect that you have a set of core values hanging on a wall somewhere or listed on your website. Or, you may have a mission statement that indicates the core values of your organization. The idea is to start with what you already have.

Okay, so the next step is to go through that list of core values and ask what do those things really mean? Or more important, what do those things really mean to US as a school?.Then I want you to turn those those core values into value statements.

So for instance, suppose you have a core value of integrity. That might become Do the right thing even when no one is looking. Or suppose as a school you have a core value of inclusion. That might become, giving every student equal access to opportunities. Or here’s one I hear a lot in schools. They have a core value of respect. That might become, always treat others in a respectful manner.

You get the idea. Take each one of those core values and turn it into a value statement that conveys what the core value really means to your school.

Okay, once you’ve created a values statement, you’re not done yet. That’s because while a values statement is a little better than just one word, but I bet they will still be a little fuzzy and need some more refinement.

For instance, in the example I just mentioned, what exactly does it mean that we will give every student equal access to opportunity really mean? If I only have room in my honors class for 30 students but I have 40 students who want to take the class, what do I do? If I have a student who wants to go to the school dance but has been suspended the day of the dance, does that student still get to come to the dance? If I have a teacher who thinks a student really needs extra support, how do I deliver that support?

Or take the statement Always Treat Others with respect. What does respect look like? How do I know when I am being respectful?

That’s where the Non-Negotiables come in. The non-negotiables are clear guidelines about what we WILL and will NOT do. They animate our decisions. They keep us excited about what we do and why we do it.

So, let’s take the Inclusion values statement we created for example. We now say that we want to give students equal access to opportunities. What does that look like as a non-negotiable? Well it might look like, we never exclude any student from academic or social opportunities for any reason. So, if I only have room in my honors class for 30 students but I have 40 who want in, I create another section. And if a student is suspended the day of the dance, they still get to attend the dance.

All of a sudden, that core value expressed as a non-negotiable gets crystal clear doesn’t it?

Or take the respect core values statement which was Always treat others with respect. Expressed as a non-negotiable it might become always treat others the way that you want to be treated even if they do not reciprocate. Okay, so now I know exactly what respect looks like and I know when I am being respectful.

Here’s the value of turning your core values into non-negotiables. You all of a sudden get crystal clear about what you really believe.

The next step is to try on the non-negotiables and see if you are really willing as an organization to live by them.

For example, in my inclusion non-negotiable, are you really willing to let a suspended student attend a dance? If not, then you need to rework or reword your non-negotiable so that it’s truly something that everyone can live with.

And that’s the key, because once you establish your non-negotiables, you will need to live with and by them. They now become the compass that you will use to make all of your decisions and govern how you run your school. Once everyone agrees to your non-negotiables, everyone is now accountable to live by them.

It's so powerful. I have lived this myself. The moment that you turn your core values into non negotiables, everything changes for your school.

So as we wrap up today's episode...

I just want to do a quick recap of everything we talked about today and I also want to tell you that if you want to go through this exercise yourself, I'm going to give you a freebie for the week and it contains a summary of these steps that I'm talking about here. And a couple of examples of how the term core value to non-negotiable. Just so you can see what it looks like because your core values are this largely underused, but really powerful secret weapon that you could be using to help make your school a lot more focused, to give yourself a lot more clarity, to build a lot more trust, and the way that you make your core values more powerful is to turn them into non-negotiables because when you turn your core values into non-negotiables, you immediately can leverage them into some really powerful decision filters that help you build consistency and trust with your teachers and with your parents and with your students and you can use your non negotiables to make hiring decisions and remember.

I'll talk about that a little bit more the next time, but you can also use them to attract the right people to your school. And here's the important part. Repel the wrong people from your school. Once you agree, as a school on a set of non negotiables, you can immediately hold everybody accountable and in fact, you can be more accountable to the people you're serving. So the way to turn your core values into non negotiables is pretty simple. So first you're going to just make a list of your current core values. Next you're going to turn each one into a value statement that gives you a little bit more clarity about what they mean. Then you're going to turn each value statement into a non negotiable and finally you're going to try on your new non negotiable to see if you can really live with it.

If you can, that it's truly a core value, and if you can't, then you'll need to revise it until it accurately reflects the core values of your school.

So now it's time for you to create your own non negotiables. 

But before I send you off to complete the non negotiable worksheet that is included with this episode, I want to share with you two final caveats.

First, the most manageable number of non negotiables tends to be three to five anymore and you've, you'll have a hard time remembering them and using them to drive your decisions. So don't overcomplicate things. Shoot for three to five schoolwide non-negotiables. Choose the ones that are the most important to your school community and that make the biggest difference in how you operate as a school.

Second, I want you to make sure that you choose non negotiables that resonate with you and that represent what you'll as a school stand for sure not everybody's going to share your core values or appreciate your non negotiables, but that doesn't matter.

I don't want you to be generic here. Determined the non negotiables that define who you are as a school community and they keep every member of your community inspired and accountable. Nobody can tell you what your non-negotiables should be. You as a school have to decide those for yourself and you're going to have to live with them, so don't be generic.

Make sure that things that really resonate to your school community. All right, so that's it for today. Don't forget to download your non negotiables worksheet and you can find it when you go to school. Leadership reimagined, episode nine, and it's always, if you have any questions about this week's episode, feel free to hit me up on linkedin and we're still not connected on linkedin. Then stop whatever you're doing right now, find me at ​Robyn ​Jackson on linkedin and let's connect. 

Now, I want to remind you about one more thing...

If you're listening to this episode around the time that at first airs, then I want to invite you to a very special free training that I'm doing. For those of you who are thinking about building your own education consulting business some day, if you've always wanted to start your own education consulting business, but you weren't sure how to start or you wondered whether anyone would actually pay you for what you have to offer or maybe you're just afraid to get going that I want to invite you to participate in the jump start your education consulting business​ five day challenge. 

​During this challenge will spend five days together figuring out what the focus of your education consulting business should be. We're going to figure out how to distinguish yourself from every other person out there calling themselves an education consultant, how to find and attract your ideal customers and how to fund your new business and the three things you absolutely must have in place before you quit your job. Plus you're going to get a free workbook that you can use to develop your own roadmap to your education consulting business, and I'll be there each day offering lot coaching in real time and giving you real time feedback on what you're developing to make sure that you're on the right track and get that.

It's all free. All you have to do a sign up. Go to school leadership reimagined that episode nine, and click on the button to join the challenge. Once you register, I'm going to send you everything you need to get started, but the challenge starts again on sunday, May 13th, 2018 at 7:30 PM eastern standard time and it goes til thursday, may 17, 2018. And so for each of those days I'll do a live training every evening at 7:30 PM eastern standard time. And if you can't make the live trainings each day, no worries. I'll archive all of the trainings so that you can watch them at a time that works for you, but you're going to need to move fast.

You see, once the challenge is over, we're going to close things down. It's just a pop up group, a five day challenge to jumpstart your education consulting business. So if you want to join, now's the time to do it again. Just go to school leadership reimagined.com/episode nine and sign up for the challenge. I'll make sure that I put a link to the challenge in the show notes.

Now, next time...

 I'm going to be talking to you about for battle battle-tested interview questions that I always use to find and hire the best teachers. It's something that I've been asked a lot lately and so I'm going to pull back the curtain and I'm going to share with you my secrets and I've got a great freebie next week. It's a list of interview questions that you can use or that you can adapt to make sure that you run your next interview, lack of builder, so make sure you tune in for that. That's it for today. I'll talk to you next time.

Thank you for listening to the ​School Leadership Reimagined podcast for show notes and free downloads visit​ ​https://schoolleadershipreimagined.com/

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