Many members of school boards come with experience on other boards, especially in the business sector, but also on other not-for-profit boards. Many Heads of Schools struggle with what they perceive as an overly pragmatic approach by such board members as they continually focus on balance sheets, KPIs, returns of investment, enrolment statistics, and so on. Most Heads readily acknowledge the importance of such matters, but also wish (usually secretly) that board members would balance this with greater attention to the areas of their school that are less readily reduced to statistics.
Albert Einstein is reported to have said “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”. In his book “The Little Prince”, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry went further, saying “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye”. It is anecdotally true that very few school board members see with their hearts or focus on what is invisible to the eye.
At the core of “what is invisible and uncountable” lies the school’s values. Indeed, for any school, it is arguably its values that define its identity.
If we express this in a way that a stereotypically hard-headed board member from a business background might appreciate, it is the school’s values that drive appropriate resource allocation, both human and financial. More to the point, the process of developing, defining and promulgating the school’s values pay dividends in a multitude of other ways.
Values which are clearly articulated, promulgated, and authentically practised will inevitably have a profound influence on the character of students who graduate from a school. It should be obvious that each of the four schools shown in the photos below display significantly different core values and will produce quite different students from each other. (Click each photo to enlarge and see it clearly).
This monument at Eagle’s Nest Christian School, Polokwane, South Africa identifies the core values of (i) prayer (ii) education and (iii) outreach, drawing inspiration from Isaiah 40:31 which reads in part “those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles”.
Cultural evening performance at Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong. The large banner overlooking the College’s central courtyard lists the College’s core values: (i) international and intercultural understanding; (ii) celebration of difference; (iii) personal responsibility and integrity; (iv) mutual responsibility and respect; (v) compassion and service; (vi) respect for the environment; (vii) a sense of idealism; (viii) personal challenge; and (ix) action and personal example.
“Are you excited about the military game of beating up Americans?” is the slogan on this wall display on a staircase landing in the Kindergarten on Chonsamri Co-operative farm, near Kangsŏ, North Korea.
Every school has both stated and unstated organisational values that are derived from their beliefs and assumptions about the world, but not every school makes these values a focus of their daily operations. The common element of these four schools shown above is that their well-considered values positions are so highly visible that they cannot be ignored by any teacher or student in the institution. When values can be expressed clearly and authentically in a way that goes to the heart of the school’s purpose, it touches people,
This is how the school’s values can (as described above) drive resource allocation, both human and financial. Potential parents and students, potential new staff, and even potential new board members, are always interested in what a school stands for. If they can go to the website or browse the school’s publications and find a strong statement of values that is supported by a clear mission statement, they are very likely to want to be involved with the school. It may even lead some altruistic individuals to donate money to the school because they are excited by finding a set of values which they share with passion.
Values attract people to schools in ways that more logically oriented documentation such as organisational charts, the model of strategic change, the qualifications list of the staff and the school’s history are unlikely to achieve. Schools are institutions where ‘heart decisions’ often outweigh ‘head decisions’ because the futures of children are involved.
Values are especially important in attracting suitable new people to join the board. Very few people sign up to serve on a school board because they are excited about the job description or the list of responsibilities. They typically agree to join because they share a set of values and feel a passionate commitment to the mission (enduring purpose) of the school and its immediate vision to accomplish that mission.
It follows from this that the board should periodically review its own performance, not simply in terms of fulfilling its fiduciary and other duties, but especially with respect to its progress and impact in identifying, articulating, promoting and furthering the school’s core values. When goals are set for the coming year, an important focus should be exploring practical, intentional, effective ways in which the core values will be advanced.
What makes an excellent values statement? The first point to note is that values are not the same as virtues. Some of the values statements in the photos above confuse the two terms because they include virtues such as kindness and compassion; characteristics which are somewhat generic and which lack a challenge through action.
A strong values statement will be fundamentally unique to the school; it will help to define its identity.
It will embrace the essential characteristics of the school, including its beliefs and assumptions, as well as being somewhat challenging in that it invites the reader to want to find out more about what it means for them.
It will also include the organisational behaviours to which the school commits itself. This will include the ways in which members of the school community will interact with each other as well as ways in the school will interact with the outside world.
It will outline the qualities that make those within the school proud to be a part of the organisation.
Finally, the values statement should be simple, readable, and easy to remember.
Of course, values statement do not write themselves. The process of formulating a strong values statement may seem long and excruciating, especially for board members who are more comfortable analysing balance sheets or stock market reports. Nonetheless, the process of getting a values statement right is one of the most important tasks a board can undertake; it is right up there with recruiting a new Principal in its importance for determining the school’s future.
Ideally, to prepare a values statement, a board would begin by assembling a group of people who really understand what the school’s purpose includes and display a genuine passion for that mission. This group should comprise just six to ten people drawn from a diverse mix of board members, senior and middle leaders, teaching and non-teaching staff, plus some students and parents. The need for diversity arises because greater diversity increases the range of perspectives offered, and research consistently demonstrates that diverse groups make better (more sustainable, more authentically transformative) decisions than more uniform groups.
The exercise would begin remotely before anyone gathers as a group. After appointing a facilitator to guide the process, the first step is to invite each member of the group – individually at home – to write down (or type) their views on questions such as (a) why did you first get involved with this school? (b) what do you think are the school’s most distinctive features? (c) why do you think people at this school are so happy to be involved? (d) why do you think developing a values statement is so important? and (e) what core values do you personally bring to this discussion?
The value of starting the process on an individual basis is to maximise the originality and creativity of the initial input, avoiding the ‘groupthink’ dynamic that often occurs in meetings where the first response may steer (or divert) the direction of the ensuing conversation.
All participants then send their answers to the group’s facilitator who collates, documents and then distributes the collated responses to each member of the group. This provides everyone with a chance to read and reflect on everyone else’s responses at their leisure.
After everyone had a chance to read each other’s individual perspectives, the group is assembled for the first time face-to-face and invited to discuss the document that was circulated. Typically, this meeting lasts for about three hours, and is usually highly productive provided everyone has read the collated document before the gathering. Everyone has the opportunity to speak, the discussion is minuted, and the expected outcome is a highly effective statement of the school’s core values.
I have found that people love being a part of these types of conversations, especially once the momentum gets underway. This applies especially to board members who find they have been freed from routine discussions about fiduciary duties and balance sheets to progress to the things that really matter – the invisible values that define the school’s identity.
I’m sure Einstein and Saint-Exupéry would have predicted this, just as I suspect they would have enjoyed participating in a generative discussion to develop your school’s vision statement.
-Dr Stephen Codrington
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