Somewhere along the way, we became averse to prescribing things. Values that were once widely accepted became questioned; ways of doing things became relative; value judgements became a no-no. We were free to pick and choose and as long as we didn’t do some very basic things like murder people, cause physical harm, steal, etc.
This has an inherent problem: When you’re dealing with an environment where people are sharing a space with others, you’re necessarily going to have to decide on the values of that environment. When dealing with social environments, you have to decide communal values. I hope this is just common sense – in one space with lots of different people, we need common ways of being that help us to get along and fulfil our purpose (whatever that is, such as do the shopping, drive to a destination, buy a cup of coffee, etc.)
When you exist in different stand-alone spaces, you can have different ways of doing things for your particular space, and different values co-existing as a whole. For example, in a city, different households are free to hold different values within the confines of their house, because they are responsible for that particular space, but when you exist in one space, you need to agree a set of values – a set of beliefs about how and why things are done, particular to that space. Again, taking the example of a household, it will have its own way of doing things, such as its own routines, its own manners, its own structures and priorities that help it to accomplish whatever its aims are (that Mum can get to work on time; that the house is tidy; that everyone is respectful, etc). This may be different to the way the neighbours do things.
A school is one space, provided to many different people (staff and students). By virtue of its existence as one communal space with lots of people, it needs to decide its values – what the school believes in and how things are done – and its purpose. How are things going to be here so that ‘X’ can happen – e.g. so that students can achieve the highest grades; so that everyone gets along, etc. This is where I see so many discussions get wishy-washy, which in my opinion, goes back to what I stated at the beginning – the aversion to prescribing things.
I’ve seen people almost reluctant to state that grades should the number one priority in the school. After all, it’s the one tangible, long-term thing that we give our students that opens (or closes) different paths for them once they leave us. You have to prescribe that purpose. I’ve seen other people OK with not having a clear picture as to why students are in school. On the other hand, the best places I’ve worked in or observed have a very clear idea about what their values and purpose are. I’m not saying that I’ve always agreed with their values and purpose, or what that ultimately meant for how things ran in those environments, but the clarity of the whole thing allowed everyone (students, staff and parents alike) to make a choice whether that environment was for them or not. That clarity also allowed those places to achieve one major thing above everything else – coherence. The values and purpose fed into everything: the monitoring and evaluation systems of the school, the behaviour policy, the rewards system, teacher job roles and working conditions, interactions between staff and students, parent/teacher agreements, the assessment and evaluation cycles – on and on and on.
The mere position of knowing what you stand for and what your purpose is allows you to create systems that all inter-mingle seamlessly with each other and support each other. In other words, you’re not taking one initiative from here and another from there and trying to set something up that doesn’t gel with anything else you have.
So this is really a plea – decide on your values. Prescribe them. Put your stake in the ground. Then use them to audit your current ways of doing things and your current systems. You’ll probably find that the whole process of doing that thinking and evaluation will pay huge dividends now and in the future.