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Are Your Core Values Really at the Core?

“Through my five years in this school, I grew most in our word Respect. Our definition of Respect is: I can recognize, honor, and protect the God-given value of others. I think my greatest growth was in fifth and sixth grade when we all started digging at each other and making rude comments, and hurting each other’s feelings. I learned to think before I spoke, and I learned to be kind and to forgive. I learned how to love others. There are still some flaws in me in sixth grade, but this has been a tremendous year for me.”

This quote is from the graduation speech of a sixth-grade boy in our school. Every student is required to give a graduation speech that reflects on three points: What have I learned about myself as a learner? In which of our core values have I grown, and how do I know that? What has helped form me spiritually in my time at this school?

Our school has six core values we call the Six Words of Servanthood that were taken from the character of Daniel in the bible. Our words are Courage, Humility, Respect, Integrity, Seeker of God, and Teachability. Their acronym spells CHRIST because we believe our most important work in a Christian school is fostering the character of Christ in each member of our community. Over the course of 35 years, we have tried to embed our core values in our chapel time, daily devotions, academic work, projects, and progress reports. We believe God has shown us some effective practices that embody our core values in the hearts and minds of our staff, students, and parents.

  • Core values need to have student-friendly definitions that all students know by heart. Often a school’s core values are accompanied by a lengthy paragraph or a number of bullet points. So, for example, one of our school’s core values is humility. There’s a lot one could say from Philippians 2 about the humility of Christ, and we do explore that, but our definition for the word that the students know is put in terms of a learning target - Humility: I can lay down my life to do things God’s way.

  • Each word has a prayerfully chosen symbol. Our symbol for humility is a cup, or chalice, with flames coming out of it. Because humility is misunderstood and misinterpreted, we wanted a powerful symbol for it. In chapel, we talk about the passage where Christ, in the Garden of Gethsemane, asked that the cup of suffering be taken from him, but he is committed to doing the Father’s will. Because Christ drank the cup of suffering, out of it comes purification, new life, and the Holy Spirit, symbolized by flames. We want the students to recognize that humility is powerful. This stained glass window, and one for each of our core values, was created by students as a gift to the school. We also have banners with each of our values and posters where students re-imagined symbols for each word.

  • Each word has an anchor scripture that students memorize.

  • We tell stories of Biblical characters who particularly lived out the core value. John the Baptist is a wonderful example of humility, as well as Mary, the mother of Jesus.

  • We tell stories of others who lived out this value. The Tower: A Story of Humility by Richard Paul Evans is a good one for younger children. The life story of Saint Patrick is a helpful one for older students. Our school has collected a library of books for each of our core values.

  • Students generate a list of core values in action. We spend the first two months of chapel exploring our core values in the ways listed above. But perhaps the most important thing we do is ask the students to list what that word will look like in action during the school day.

Here is a partial list of what they generated for humility this year:

-I can admit when I’m wrong.

-I can compromise and come to an agreement.

-I can admit I need help and ask for it.

-I can think of others above myself and put them first.

-I can turn others to Jesus with kind words when they are annoying/upsetting me.

These are typed up and displayed in each classroom. Teachers use them for spiritual formation purposes. “Nathan, remember we said we want to be like Christ in showing humility. That means admitting when we’re wrong.” The beauty of this is that the students themselves came up with this list, so we are only holding them accountable for how they said they wanted to live.

  • Celebrate when students show a core value. We decided not to use words like award or reward but to celebrate together when someone is modeling one of our values. When we celebrate a student living out humility, I tell the students that the word humility is related to the word humus, which means “dirt.” And in the same way that dirt gives up its nutrients for the plant, humility helps others by putting them first and responding to their needs. We give a growing plant to the child who has consistently demonstrated humility. Each of the core values has its own way of being celebrated.

  • As part of a writing unit, students write a poem or a prayer about humility.

  • Students keep a journal about their own growth in the core values. Some reflection questions for students to think, journal, and pray about:

In what ways do you lay down your life for others?

Where do you need to practice humility more?

How do you think your life would be different if you practiced more humility?

Staff engagement with core values

In our school, we create an action list for what our core values will look like lived out amongst the staff because if we are not intentional about living our core values, we know we can’t ask that of our students. We discuss our core values and then put one each on a piece of chart paper. We ask the staff to write how we could observe that value in action as staff. Next, we invite each staff person to go to the value they feel most drawn to, and all who choose that value will synthesize the all-staff comments into a number of bullet points. We do the same process for how they will show humility towards their students. Here is an example of what they generated yesterday at our faculty meeting for humility towards one another on the staff:

  • I can actively seek ways to serve my colleagues.

  • I can be a cheerful member of the team willing to do things that may not be part of my job.

  • I can step back so others can step up.

Here are the ways they want to show humility toward their students:

  • I can ask students for feedback about my teaching and receive it.

  • I can be gentle in my interactions with students.

  • I can apologize and ask for forgiveness from my students when needed.

  • I can have the mind of Christ, putting my students’ needs above my own.

These are posted in the faculty room and in each classroom.

We send parents chapel news each week, where we encourage them to discuss and put these words into action in their daily lives at home. Even our board of trustees does this same exercise for how they will engage the core values so that the entire school community is aligned and committed to growing in the character of Christ.

We have been blessed to see growth in both staff and students by being prayerfully intentional in finding ways to embody our core values. If your school feels the need to go deeper in this area, I pray that the endlessly creative Holy Spirit will inspire, guide, and sustain you!


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