In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to reaffirm that for which I am most grateful: our community’s commitment to continuous, crucial conversations guided by our core values of respect, responsibility, honesty, and kindness.
It has been far too long since I have carved out time to be reflective regarding our work at Park. By way of explanation, let me start with an observation by leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz:
“Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom. Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure you don’t collide with other dancers. When asked later about the dance, you exclaim, ‘The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.’
But, if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. You might have noticed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. You might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.
The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.”
To torture this metaphor a bit, for the last eighteen months a perfect storm of operational and personal concerns have had me dancing as fast as I can, with very little opportunity to get up to the balcony and look at things strategically. Thankfully, the music has now slowed to a manageable tempo and I find myself in a position to once again gain some distance from the fray.
Maybe it’s turning fifty, or my impending professional transition, or some combination of the two, but as I take time to reflect, I find myself ruminating on some of the more important patterns that emerged over my last decade heading Park School. I am blessed with some time to make sense of these before I “head east,” and plan to share them out over the next few months. In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let’s start with that for which I am most grateful: our community’s commitment to continuous, crucial conversations guided by our core values of respect, responsibility, honesty, and kindness.
While these values are now firmly embedded in Park’s culture, this hasn’t always been the case. When I came to Park in 2008, it struck me that as a community we needed some common language that would guide us in the continuous development of our character, both for faculty and students alike. Park has always had a strong ethical culture, but without some explicit language at our core, describing, refining, and transmitting what we valued as a school was more difficult than it needed to be. With this in mind, I entered into a conversation with various constituents about adopting a set of core values that could define and guide this work. This is not easy, because a community like ours -- any community really -- can get lost in the conversation regarding the wide range of possible values we could embrace.
Luckily, we knew we were educating students for the twenty-first century, and that one of our charges was to prepare and inspire students to think and act as knowledgeable and ethical participants in a diverse, global community. And as fate would have it, I had spent some time with a gentleman named Dr. Rushworth Kidder, who was an expert on universal values.
Dr. Kidder’s work was focused on determining whether there is a set of values shared across cultures and religious belief systems. His hope was that identifying a set of universal values would provide common ground on which an increasingly global and ethically complex world could build a common understanding. To this end, he had surveyed, interviewed, or facilitated discussions with thousands of people from a range of countries including: Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, El Salvador, Germany, Guatemala, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
After twenty years of research that included multiple methods and an ever-growing sample size, Dr. Kidder identified five values that seem to rise to the top of the list whenever and wherever he asked people to identify the moral and ethical values that they held in highest regard. These turned out to be Honesty, Responsibility, Respect, Fairness, and Compassion.
In our fine tradition of experiential education, Park replicated Dr. Kidder’s work in 2009. We began by asking our Middle School students to identify a set of “life rules” that would make Park, “a great place to go to school.” This discussion yielded a list of ten rules that we then asked Lower, Middle, and Upper School students and their families to narrow down to five. We tabulated the results and the five values that received the largest number of responses where Respect, Honesty, Responsibility, Kindness, and Fairness. This close correlation was either a tremendous coincidence or Dr. Kidder was truly on to something.
Our hope in identifying this explicit set of core values for Park was to create a shared vocabulary that reflects our community at its best. We felt we needed this because the relative power of other institutions that modeled civic virtues – houses of worship, volunteer organizations, even our larger extended families – seemed to have eroded in the last fifty years. Yet all the research on character education indicated that ethical literacy could be taught, much the way other literacies are taught, and that these are life skills that can be deliberately developed over time. This progression begins with identifying, clarifying, and demonstrating what we value with younger students and culminates with older students (and adults) displaying moral courage, which Kidder defines as, “the willing endurance of significant danger for the sake of principles.”
When I wrote about this in 2009, I wrote that this was, “a first step on a longer journey,” and it certainly was. Fast forward nearly a decade, and these values are now integrated into almost everything we do at Park. They are central to our work with Responsive Classroom, to our “Caught Being Good” initiative in the lower school, embedded in all of our community and discipline conversations, and even woven into our professional evaluations.
While this work is rooted in values we adopted long ago, it seems particularly relevant today. I find myself incredibly grateful to have Park’s common language and universal expectations of Respect, Responsibility, Honesty, and Kindness as a framework for contemporary conversations with students about the current state of our culture. They provide an incredibly powerful starting point from which to explore issues such as wealth inequality, social justice, gender equality, and the current state of American politics. These are difficult but crucial conversations that speak directly to the part of our mission that calls on us to provide Park students and graduates with the skills and confidence essential to serve and lead.
I’m not certain what this small school in Buffalo can do to impact the larger culture, but I do know that when we talk to students about service learning at Park, we explain that making big social changes often feels daunting, but making smaller changes is very doable. We also explain that the cumulative impact of modest changes often result in larger and seemingly sudden societal shifts.
I also know that our school has a long tradition of turning out engaged citizens, that we ramped this work up nine years ago, and that since then we have graduated hundreds of respectful, honest, kind, and responsible young adults into the world who might just change our collective futures for the better. This is one of those things that gives meaning to my life’s work, and is something for which I shall always be thankful.