Establishing Culture Through Core Value Reflection

As a young teacher, I was just trying to get by. As I’ve grown in the craft of teaching, I am convinced that reflection is invaluable to create a classroom culture. It’s important for students to have time to reflect, but it’s also vital for an educator to reflect on his or her practice. Knowing what soft skills you want to impart to students allows you to plan with purpose. After much reflection, my core values include autonomy, mastery, purpose, collaboration, risk-taking, embracing failure, joy and kindness. To teach those core values, I intentionally set time aside to interact with students around them

While I usually tried to do these things early in the year, they are just as relevant in February. Here are eight steps that I have taken to share those values with students:

  1. I taught routines and expectations—While we built expectations together, both what was expected of students and what was expected of me, I taught those collaborative routines and expectations through practice, modeling and re-teaching. I had every student go to the supply closet and get a pencil at some point in the first week. Even though I wanted to stray from the opening routine early in the year, I stuck to it because I wanted it to stick throughout the year. 
  2. I taught kindness—Instead of hoping that students would be kind to each other, I modeled kindness and explicitly talked about how to be kind and respectful to one another. We made a list of what kindness looked like and posted it. Having the conversation, writing about kindness and posting a visual representation of it set the tone.
  3. I took breaks with my students—For me, it was often a quick game of look up or a movement break of some type, but we got into the habit of breaks and, most importantly, got back to work. It became normal to take a quick break and then get back to it although it took a little time for that to develop.
  4. We talked—I wanted to get to know the students, but I also wanted them to get to know each other. Sometimes, we spent too much time gabbing, but it paid off later in the year when they were asked to be more introspective and more thoughtful in their interactions with others. I also knew my students well. Through the talking and the writing about themselves, I always felt confident that I knew a lot about my students.
  5. I had clear learning targets and I could assess them—Students are naturally uncomfortable when they don’t know what to expect. I wrote learning targets on the board, and they were assessed weekly.
  6. I let them complain—It wasn’t always easy. I didn’t always agree with them, but I listened. We were always careful to avoid criticizing people. We would criticize ideas instead, and often there was a nice discussion that opened up both sides of the argument.
  7. I apologized when I needed to—Humility is one of my favorite traits in others, and I try to model it for students. It isn’t easy. I don’t like it, but it humanized me and showed them it was ok to make mistakes.
  8. We embraced process over products—The evolution of the process-thinking, idealized by the growth mindset, has always been a part of my thinking. As a piano player and former athlete, it was always obvious to me that skill-building takes failure to succeed. Some people don’t like the word failure because it seems so final. You can call them setbacks or challenges if you want. They mean the same thing to me. I always liked this quote by Winston Churchill, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

The most important step for me was to define what I wanted the classroom to look and feel like, and to do that, I reflected on the values that I wanted to share with the students. This was a process, over several years, of trial and much error, but I feel confident that students have a better experience in the classroom of this veteran teacher than they ever did when I was a young teacher. I learned that hoping for behavior to be a certain way is not enough, even if I model well. Behavior and values must be explicitly taught and discussed.

If you haven’t spent time reflecting on what matters to you as an educator, I encourage you to think about those times when you felt encouraged and purposeful after a day with students. What have you given to students that can’t be measured by tests? Those are probably your core values.