by Becky Sipos

Which is better: honesty or integrity? empathy or compassion?

Of course, it’s a bogus question. Both are good. At first glance, principle one sounds easy “Choose your core values.” But there are so many good qualities out there, how do you choose?  And how long do you stick with your choices? When should you change?

Over the years that I have been evaluating schools for our Schools of Character program, core values seem to follow trends. In 2007 most of the schools had some variation on these: respect, responsibility and honesty. But in recent years, schools have been including values such as empathy, compassion or kindness. Is that because of the times? The Great Kindness Challenge got over 2 million students to perform acts of kindness last year. Did it also influence schools to change their core values?

Do events in the news affect what schools choose? Smith Street School’s whole education program came about because of their environment. “The stakes are so high,” says Dr. Triplett, “Because of the realities outside of our school, many kids in our area are in danger … good character is, in many cases, a matter of life and death to our kids. They have to make good choices in life — and we want them and their parents to understand the connection. For this reason, we see these students as OUR children. CE is so, so much deeper here for that reason.” They chose “reflection” as one of their core values as they really want their students to think through their actions.

Schools seem to fit into three categories when it comes to selected core values.

  1. Some schools that have historical documents or a tradition that has ingrained certain values to the school. Milton Hershey School in Hershey, Pennsylvania is like that. Their founder Milton Hershey left his fortune to the school and his legacy drives the school’s values. Military schools also often benefit from a tradition of values.
  1. The second category includes schools that have their values decided by others. Perhaps a school district has decided core values for all schools in the district, or perhaps a school purchases a program that comes with core values such as Character Counts! with its six pillars.
  1. The third category is for those schools who can freely choose whatever values they want. But that is easier said than done. For example, the Virtues Project lists 52 virtues. How do you choose?

Selecting core values can take quite a while. I remember at my high school, we began with a series of meetings. All teachers would meet during their planning time and each hour created a list of their preferred values. Each group would leave their list on the conference room, and next group would come in and modify the list. Emotions really ran high as people advocated for one value or another.

Students participated via clubs, student government and lunch time meetings creating their own lists. They actually seemed to have an easier time agreeing than did the teachers. The community was invited to join in at several forums and they added their lists to the group. After each group of stakeholders generated their lists of values that people thought should be the best traits to define us, we then began the process of narrowing the possibilities.

Right now there are core value debates going on in our country and being played out in the news. Which is more important to us: freedom or security? The acts of terrorism add urgency to the debates. Free speech or civility? The protests on college campuses have ignited passionate responses and op-eds on both sides of the debate. These are tough questions and people do not agree. Stakeholders in a school don’t always agree either as to what is most valuable, but the exercise in discussing values and selecting preferences is worth the time it takes to come to agreement.