Especially at the start of a new school year, classrooms can be chaotic with students testing the limits of a teacher’s authority and not wanting to be constrained again after summer’s freedom.
Some highly effective teachers have borrowed a page from the playbook of high-performance teams in other kinds of organizations by eliciting the shared values of their students. These shared values become the behavioral norms of the class and enlist positive peer pressure to supplement the teacher’s authority. This “peer reinforcement” is important because traditional authority loses its effectiveness when enforced too often.
Shared values are the principles and beliefs that class members deem to be most important. They will guide the class’s behavior, even when the teacher is not there. They are not rules or commands. They are guiding values that help students determine what to do when there is no specific rule to guide them.
Shared values should be posted prominently for all to see (e.g., on the wall or board) and work best when there is an explanatory phrase or sentence for each one. Ideally, they form an acronym so they can be easily remembered. Here is an example of the shared values of the Rocky Mountain Deaf School in Colorado (which Gregg used to volunteer for):
- Continuous innovation. We find creative new ways to be more effective in everything that we do, including taking responsible risks.
- High expectations. We expect the best work from our students, faculty, administrators, board, and parents—and won’t settle for anything less.
- Exceptional teamwork. We work collaboratively and inclusively to help each other be successful and to ensure that our collective efforts result in more than what we could accomplish individually.
- Family atmosphere. We create a welcoming and intimate environment where students, parents, and educators feel comfortable and can work productively together.
(The acronym they form is “CHEF.”)
High-performance teams often start every meeting with a short recap of their values to keep them top of mind. Teachers might do the same each day. The values empower everyone to act according to the values and further authorize everyone to hold others, even the teacher, accountable for values-based behavior.
Then if your class has a show-off hogging attention, peer pressure will exert itself for them to change. The same is true for the class clowns, bullies, and “negative nellies.”
Shared values must be collaboratively developed—not mandated by the teacher—to be embraced by students. To elicit a set of shared values, follow these steps:
Explain what shared values are and how they will guide behavior.
- Ask the students to think for a few minutes about the four to six words that might best encapsulate the desired values of this class. (See our Personal Values Exercise for a list of potential values.)
- Ask them to share their ideas verbally, with the teacher writing them clearly on the board for all to see.
- Weed out duplicates, consolidate synonyms, and then narrow the list down to the top eight to ten that resonate the most.
- Ask for several volunteers to take the list and discuss it with classmates and others, including administrators, friends, and parents, further narrowing the list down to the final four to six values they recommend, ideally forming an acronym.
- Jointly craft explanatory phrases or sentences to make them more specific and helpful.
- Hold another class meeting a few days later to discuss the new draft.
- Repeat steps as necessary until a reasonable consensus emerges. (This constant drafting and redrafting elicits inputs and helps inculcate the values in the class.)
- Empower everyone in the class to hold everyone else accountable to the values, even (especially) you, the teacher.
- Reinforce the values often, even asking when students have a dilemma, “What do our shared values tell us?”
Elicit shared values to improve the culture of your classroom and its learning environment.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards.