On December 31st, 2019, I was full of energy, excitement, and anticipation. We were heading into a new decade! I had multiple activities for my kids and our family as we dreamed up all that the new year would bring. We listed goals for the year, dreams for the decade, and reflected on all the good that had come to us during the 2010s.
My kids are young so we did an early countdown, balloon drop, and toast and tucked them into bed. I was disappointed when around 10:00 that night I began to feel tired and like I was coming down with something. I ended up going to bed before midnight and staying there until January 3rd, 2020. “That’s okay,” I thought! Just a minor setback. Besides, everyone knows the new year doesn’t officially start until we go back to school! 2020 was still going to be my year!
It will come as no surprise when I tell you that 2020 was not, in fact, my year.
Fast forward to December 31st, 2020 and the energy in our house was quite different. I had no real plans to mess with resolutions or even intentions. I was tired and only cautiously optimistic about the promise that I’d once believed to come with new beginnings.
Still, I wanted to take what I had learned and create a plan for growth. Rather than set goals this year that depended on concrete achievements for success, I opted to revisit an activity I had done in the past. I chose to connect with my values and outline a way in which I might redefine success. Instead of checking off a list of accomplishments (or not), what if I focused on value-based living?
As most of us learned in the past year, we can’t predict what will happen next and when we feel out of control or faced with a lot of new, potentially frightening, things all at once it is easy to get overwhelmed, burnt out, and disconnected. Perhaps, if we spend time looking inward rather than out for answers, we might find ourselves better equipped to grow through the tough times without losing ourselves. I believe this might be true for individuals, organizations, and even classrooms.
With that in mind, let’s talk strategy! Together we’ll explore how to identify our own values, how to collaboratively operationalize an organization’s values, and how these activities might empower the students with whom we work.
Identifying Personal Values
The first step for me was to look within. Rather than simply name my past top values or those values I believed I should hold nearest and dearest, it was important I reflect on if and how the events of the past year may have changed me. I needed to pause and consider what was most important to me, what defined success in my heart at this moment in time.
Once I had a better understanding of my own moral compass, I could work from a foundation I believed in and advocate for myself, my work, and my students from that space. Thankfully, I was able to return to a motivational interviewing activity introduced to me years ago called Value Card Sort. I found it to be transformational in work with students and clients but, perhaps, more importantly in my own life.
This valuable tool (pun intended) can give better understanding to our own paths, insight into the motivation of our colleagues and students, and allow us all to operate from and even evaluate our own progress from a meaningful place. In her book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown provides steps that carry this process beyond the identification of values to the conceptualizing or operationalizing of said values leaving us with behaviors that hold us accountable to acting in accordance with our defined principles.
Value Card Sort
Let’s try it! This activity is best experienced before reading the instructions. For the biggest impact, do not read ahead, but instead, follow along with this video.
Instructions if you were unable to watch the video or would like to replicate this activity, follow these instructions:
1. Choose a list of values as a starting point – two options are the value card sort cards or Brene’ Brown’s list of values.2. Read the values one by one and then separate them into three categories: very important to me, somewhat important to me, and not at all important to me.3. Tally up the number of values you have placed in the “very important” category.4. If that number is higher than ten, physically cross off values until you have your list down to your top ten.5. Have your top ten? Cut that list down to five.6. Cut the list to your top two.7. Take the activity one step further and operationalize these values as Brené Brown teaches in her book Dare to Lead by:a. Listing three behaviors for each of your top two values that let you know you are living into those valuesb. And listing three behaviors that let you know you are moving away from your values.8. Reflect by asking yourself the following questions:a. Are you living your life consistent with these values?b. Is there a dilemma or challenge in your life that might be informed by these values?c. What changes might you make to feel more aligned with your values?d. What was this activity like for you?
I’m hoping you had the time to participate in the above activity. If not, I strongly encourage you to return to it when you have an extra fifteen minutes. If you were able to give it a try, it is important to note that revisiting this activity at different times in your life can be important and revealing. As we learn and grow we must take time to double-check that foundation ensuring that we continue to be in alignment with the values that allow us to live courageously and authentically. It was this activity that started me down the path to making some big changes in my life, including a career shift.
Identifying Your Organization’s Values
The first time I completed the activity above was while I was working a job in which I felt a disconnect between my personal values and what was being asked of me professionally. Once I had defined my own values and the behaviors that were associated with living into or away from them, I felt more confident in myself, my abilities, and my work.
This also gave me the clarity I needed when searching for a new job. When the opportunity presented itself, I chose to leave and work where I felt more aligned. Although my new place of employment didn’t have operationalized values, I became curious about how we might get to that point.
While most organizations and/or schools have values displayed throughout their buildings, on their walls, on their stationery, and in their email signatures, few have identified and taught expectations based on those values. In fact, in her book Dare to Lead, Brown tells us that, “in our experience, only 10 percent of organizations have operationalized their values into teachable and observable behaviors that are used to train their employees and hold them accountable. Ten percent.” (p.190).
Particularly for those of us working in fields that have some systemic issues to tackle, it is important to create a culture that has a clear set of values and operates in a manner that supports the skill-building necessary to work within the bounds of these principles. How do we do that?
One of my favorite parts of a well-running PBIS school is the common language. Developing language and expectations that are taught, modeled, practiced, and acknowledged provides consistency allowing a culture of predictability and psychological safety for students and teachers alike. What if we created a similar type of expectation in organizations? How might we bring to life those values boldly written on their building walls and closing out every email sent by employees?
Similar to the individual card sort activity, we begin by identifying our top two or three values and then we operationalize them. This might be best done by a multidisciplinary team representative of all organizational departments. After creating a connection and feeling of psychological safety, begin with an open discussion about what values represent the mission and vision of the company. Then, place those values on a board and allow staff members to write ideas of behaviors that reflect those values. Give people some time to sit with it. Bring the team back together and discuss which three to four behaviors per value resonate most with the team.
Now that you’ve done the work to name and contextualize your organization’s values, it’s time to communicate that with all employees! Talk about them in interviews and when on-boarding new employees and then continue those conversations at staff meetings, in annual training, and in storytelling. Administrators and organizational leaders should be modeling these values in practice and recognizing others for doing the same.
Finally, incorporate these expectations into annual staff assessments where you can both praise and offer feedback for improvement based on clearly defined principles. This type of foundational work gives clear expectations and a more cohesive culture. When we have individuals who are clear about their values paired with a school or organization that has clarified theirs, it becomes easier to find good fits in terms of lasting employment. When we find the space to operate within our values, we increase the levels of job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity better serving our students, our communities, and ourselves.
Assisting Students in Identifying Values
Lastly, for my fellow educators, I wanted to briefly mention ways in which we can use value identification to guide, motivate, and connect with our students. Value card sort is an activity that can be used with students and/or clients to give insight into intrinsic motivations. You might choose a smaller list of values and ask your student to complete this activity at the start of each semester.
As students grow and change, you’ll likely notice shifts in what they value. As you help them identify their values, you are empowering them to connect with a purpose. When they operationalize these values you are giving them action steps to live a purposeful life. Aside from giving them a meaningful tool, you are given some insight into what might motivate your students based on their top values. When we better understand a person’s driving force, we are better able to connect, build relationships, and encourage growth.
Just as we discussed the importance of an organization working from a set of values, a classroom can benefit in the same way. Perhaps you could tie values to your classroom norms as you begin the school year. In Brené Brown’s Daring Classroom, you will find integration ideas along with videos to guide this type of activity. This provides you and your students a space to discuss the importance of community values and enhances the capacity for empathy, respectful conversations, and community building.
In a time when we find ourselves faced with uncertainty….. We might benefit from turning inward rather than out for answers and for peace. Reconnecting with our values as individuals and as organizations allows us to ensure we remain steady in our desire to serve our communities with their best interests in mind. Many of us were led to helping careers by an innate desire to help.
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