A Miscellany of Memories – Part 8
Now that I had enlisted the help of a group of colleagues who were looking forward to deciding which values to include on our list, I decided the best way to begin was to google the word ‘values’! As a result, we started off with a selection of almost 90 values words to consider.
The first meetings were straightforward as we whittled the list down to about 30. I had no preconceived ideas as to how many values should be on our list but I do remember thinking that 10 should be the maximum, so that they could be easily remembered. I was surprised when several members of our group said there should be an uneven number and, although to this day I have never understood why an uneven number was so important, I was happy to go along with their recommendation and we agreed that we were looking for either seven or nine as the ideal number.
Then the hard work began as we began to discuss animatedly the subtle differences between very similar values like honesty and integrity, or commitment and determination. We agreed that we would not include words which were potentially open to negative interpretation such as humility or reliability. We discussed whether a phrase like ‘high expectations’ was a value or an aim. The weeks passed and we managed to reduce the number of potential words to about 15. We had to jettison some early favourites as we inexorably moved towards our final target of nine, having some time earlier decided we would never get it down to seven. I did suggest one more time settling on ten but was reminded that ten is an even number. I did not raise the subject again.
When we finally settled on our nine words we suddenly and collectively felt that we had achieved what we had set out to do. We had created a set of values which we were confident were all positive and complementary to each other and which we believed would challenge all our children, and all the adults who worked with them, to have very high expectations of themselves and their behaviour. The nine values are:
We then spent some months creating visual display materials, rewriting some of our official documentation to reflect the words and discussing as a staff all the ways in which we would introduce the values. By the time they were launched to the children there was a shared understanding of their purpose and relevance among all the adults working in the Junior School and a consistent approach to their implementation had been agreed.
We had decided early in our discussions that we would not teach the values in any discrete way, instead we would try to live them as exemplars, we would use the values words in our day-to-day conversations with children and we would relate our expectations of children’s behaviour to one or more of the values. If for instance a child was accused of bullying behaviour the teacher dealing with him or her would have a conversation about kindness, appreciating others, taking responsibility and showing respect for others. Within a few months we were confident that almost every child understood the deep meaning of each of the values in an age-appropriate manner and were able to discuss their understanding with their teachers in a way which both surprised and delighted me.
We even made a video to the tune of ‘Reach for the Stars’, using a drone to film over 1,000 children split into their year-groups forming the letters of each of the values! You can enjoy it at Values at Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools – YouTube
I had already agreed with the Principal at the time, David Gray, that we would pilot the values in the Junior School and a decision as to whether to adopt them in the senior schools could be taken once their effectiveness had been established. What actually happened was that the children themselves, as they moved up into the senior schools, began to ask why the same words were not used and so a decision was taken that the values should be adopted throughout ESMS as three school values. They have remained central to our educational provision ever since.
I will finish this section by setting you a challenge which I used to set to visiting parents who were considering the ESMS Junior School as an option for their children’s education. Having told them briefly about the introduction of the values and their significance I then asked them to imagine they were 12 years old and to tell me which of the 9 values they would at that age have considered to be the most important and which the least important. I told them I would be surprised if their views coincided with those of actual 12 year olds! They usually became nervous at this stage, not wanting to give wrong answers even though I had already assured them that there no correct or incorrect answers, only different opinions.
I enjoyed these conversations with visitors because I was then able to explain that different groups of children, when set the same challenge, usually came up with very similar answers to each other. This consistency of response had surprised me at first but, when I listened to them discussing their reasoning, I soon realised that most of them had a much deeper understanding of their meanings than I would have expected.
So which values did they usually select as the least important?
Commitment, confidence and enthusiasm
And the most important?
Appreciation, kindness and integrity
And their shared reasoning?
Commitment, confidence and enthusiasm can be relatively selfish as they affect you more than anyone else while appreciation, kindness and integrity affect your relationship with other people. And this was from 11 and 12 year olds!
There is so much more I could say about our school values but I will confine myself to two final observations. The first is that we found that the use of quotations was a powerful method to reflect in a very practical way just how important each of the values is. I will use integrity as an example;
‘If you have integrity, nothing else matters. If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters either’.
‘Integrity is honesty when no one is looking’
My second observation and the last word must go to a young boy of Nursery age. His Mum told me one day of an animated conversation she had with him when she came home from work feeling exhausted and was immediately faced with the daily challenge of cooking a meal for her children. She told me she couldn’t face the thought of starting from scratch and, knowing that the little boy loved pizza, she said to him she was going to order a carry-out pizza, wasn’t that great! She was surprised that he seemed less than impressed and shouted something at her which she didn’t understand but sounded like ‘mitmen’. She asked him what he meant but he kept repeating the same word at some volume. Fortunately, his big sister came into the kitchen just in time to rescue the situation. When her brother said ‘mitmen’ to her she told her incredulous Mum that the little boy was cross because she wanted to opt for a carry-out which in his view definitely did not show the commitment he would have expected from his mother! He must have been listening very carefully to his Nursery teacher explaining the meaning of commitment, although he had perhaps interpreted it too literally! Out of the mouth of babes etc., but Mum did tell me that she had the last laugh as she went ahead with her pizza order. Somehow, I imagine her son did not object. He had, after all, retained the moral high ground while still enjoying his pizza!