Organize around values.

Marie Kondo is a consultant famous for helping people throw things away. Interestingly, on her website, she describes her main goal as “to help more people live a life that sparks joy, and we are committed to offering the simplest, most effective tools and services to get you there.” What Marie Kondo and I have in common is that we believe that organizing resources is essential to achieving goals. And, schools are often cluttered with ‘box’ interventions, resources, and three ring binders that seemed important at one point, but now just take up time and space. 

And, while I appreciate Marie Kondo’s emphasis on sparking joy, in my work, I avoid as much as possible telling schools what to do. Rather, I help schools decide for themselves what is important and then help them organize their exceptionally limited resources to support the social, emotional, and academic achievement of their learners. 

Whether I am helping a school or program develop systems to support positive behavior, become a trauma-informed, or to look at academic data in a new way, the main goal that we are working towards is uncover the values guiding our work, decide if those values reflect who we want to be, and adopt new values when necessary.

A value is a judgement of what is important. Because values are judgements, they reflect deeply rooted beliefs in how we go about our lives. Our values forcefully and implicitly guide our actions and our practice, we must be aware of our values and how they affect what our student learn and how they grow.

In practice, a value is a one word answer to the following question:

“To be a successful learner and a good human being, it is necessary to be [insert one word answer].”

Often, words like respectful, kind, compassionate, inquisitive, patient, committed, and resilient come to mind. When I lead this process with large groups of educators, I encourage the group to make the list as long as they can. What matters most is not the precise list of words that we uncover, but that the group becomes aware of which values are personal and which values are shared. And usually, this is when what I have come to call the “intense fellowship” begins.

Once the group has created the longest possible list of what the individuals in the room have decided is indispensable to their work, we talk for as long as is necessary to adopt no more than five values that we agree to teach, model, and reinforce in our work and throughout our community. Usually, this leads to fruitful disagreements and surprising outcomes. Educators speak their truth for the first time, and colleagues hear each other in new ways. And, as always happens, a core list of indispensable values emerges that not only supports the social, emotional, and academic achievement of our students, but also has a unique superpower of dramatically reducing time, effort, and money spent on unimportant and unhelpful tasks.

Our values are the arrow for organizing resources.

Imagine a school who believed that to be a successful learner and a good human being, it is necessary to be compassionate, respectful, inquisitive, and safe. When a proposal for a new way of teaching reading comes to their leadership team, they ask, “Will this new set of workbooks help our students become compassionate, respectful, inquisitive, and safe learners and human beings?” They look at their current reading data, and examine the workbooks focused on drilling discrete skills. Because they believe that a compassionate, respectful, inquisitive, and safe school designs instruction that is engaging and connected to important content, they will decide that the time, efforts, and money spent on these reading workbooks does not make sense. Instead, they will focus on creating a written curriculum in which all students see themselves represented in their learning. They’ll ensure that students are taught to treat each other as though they were important, and to treat themselves as though they were important. Curiosity and asking questions will be rewarded. And, staff will consider the physical and emotional safety of their students and each other as they design and deliver instruction.

The point of uncovering values is to understand who we are, what we aspire to be, and what must be transformed.

The point of uncovering values is to understand who we are, what we aspire to be, and what must be transformed. Understanding our values helps focus our teams on what matters most and keeps us disciplined in refusing to be distracted by any intervention that comes in a box or the latest noise in media. Most importantly, knowing what we value helps us see the good in each other and in every student that comes into our school or program.

As I write in the middle of a pandemic where millions of children across the United States suddenly are learning at home, I am convinced that our nation understands better now than at any point in my career that the work of helping children learn and grow is complex. In days, schools completely redesigned how they provide instruction and what they do to connect with students because giving up on our children and our youth was simply unacceptable. Education is a values-driven profession, and uncovering these values helps us live them out loud.

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