Updated: Jan 9
Values provide a sense of direction and purpose in our actions and thoughts. Adherence to a clear set of values is essential to the operation of a mature human being. A person without values is a person adrift. Therefore, the teaching of values is worthwhile since they provide a moral compass to the person who chooses to adhere to them. One of the most important responsibilities a parent carries is that of teaching values to their child.
Is it possible to teach values without having either a long, confusing list of values that always seems to require amendments as apparent exceptions arise? Wouldn’t it be convenient if our moral tool kit had a set of universal values that could stand the test of time and work anywhere in any culture? A set of values that was unassailable, easy to memorize, and could be applied to every situation anyone will ever face?
Great news: that set of values exists.
Over 20 years ago, when I became principal of a middle school which represented many cultures, I created a summer institute where teachers and administrators could collaborate and develop strategies for our school community which matched our trajectory toward improved achievement. The two guiding questions for the first institute were:
· Who are we now?
· Who do we want to become?
We were a disparate group of 28 people who came together for a common cause. The conversations and debates that ensued were impactful. Over five days (and 25 sheets of chart paper), we ended up with 75 different points. As we debated, we discovered that all 75 ideas began to fall into one of three categories. Literally everything we discussed as being important to our school community eventually fell into one of three values. We created what we ended up calling our “Three Shared Values”. They were:
RESPECT EVERYONE. We are all worthy of respect; respect = respect.
BE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOURSELF. Don’t blame others for what you do; if you did it, you own it.
YOU ARE PART OF A COMMUNITY. Your actions have an impact on those round you. We are all connected to each other.
We quickly realized that our lively conversations were worth the hard work. Our Three Shared Values were universally unassailable and were awesome in their capacity to be applied to every possible situation. It was important to us that every member of the school community be expected to adopt and operate with the Three Shared Values, so no one was exempt. Once we announced our unified commitment to those values, appropriate behavior was defined as adherence to all of the Three Shared Values and deviation from any of the three of them was considered unacceptable. Our Three Shared Values became our unassailable and transcultural road map for human interaction. It was our universal North Star of acceptable behavior for everyone.
What we stood for became crystal clear. It was immediately embraced by the entire school community because everyone agreed that the Three Shared Values were applicable to everyone and made total sense. Our school community was one of the most diverse anywhere in the U.S., but not one adult or child took issue with them.
Our week-long conversations had yielded something remarkable that we thought
for many years was uniquely ours. With our Three Shared Values, we had a sense of confidence, even swagger, which was evident to those who visited our school. People perceived we knew who we were and what we stood for. Since they were universally unassailable, everyone agreed with them. Other schools adopted our Three Shared Values, too.
Seven years later, my administrative team and I attended an end-of-year meeting for district administrators. A guest presenter was Wendell Bell, from Yale University who had recently published the findings of their research1 which explored the following question: “Are there values that all human cultures share?” Yale had committed three years and $12 million to research this question among cultures which spanned our planet.
Traveling the globe, what did they discover that was different from 27 teachers and me working in our library for one week? Nothing. As we listened to Dr. Bell reveal their findings, we turned to each other, disbelief mixed with pride. They had come up with the same Three Shared Values. Dr. Bell had determined that they were five fundamental values, but the five were all easily subsumed in our Three Shared Values. Our middle school and Yale University had found values that were central to all cultures, big and small, primitive and technologically advanced. We had hit the mark in our own, low-cost way.
While Yale University had spent $12 million, we did it for under $50!
©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.