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March 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 6
The Resilient Educator

Leading from Your Core Values

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School leaders can boost resilience by living out their values.

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LeadershipSocial-emotional learning
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A simple strategy to boost resilience is to work from your core values. There’s research to back this claim. Resilient school leaders say that the process of “privately clarifying, publicly articulating, and consciously acting on” core values is a source of strength that helps them face adversity and emerge stronger than before.
We all have core values that we aspire to live from. However, sometimes our actions don’t reflect those values. This can happen when we’re not clear on what our values are, when we’re overwhelmed and resort to habitual behaviors, or when we’re in a situation that presents a barrier to enacting those values. With clarity on our values and what it looks like to live them out, we gain a compass for our actions. When we’re acting in alignment with who we want to be in the world, we feel better. We have more energy. We feel a sense of meaning and purpose.

What Are Core Values? 

There’s an activity on my website to help educators identify their core values—or you could get started by reflecting on these questions:
  • What do you value most?
  • Which behaviors and values in others do you most appreciate?
  • How do you aspire to consistently show up in the world? 
  • What bothers you most in others? What value might be reflected in the fact that this bothers you? 
Examples of core values include compassion, ­responsibility, humor, forgiveness, gratitude, hard work, justice, love, and community. Such values can be enduring beliefs from our families of origin or religious traditions. You’ll likely find that your core values are umbrellas for other values—one can encompass many others. Core values can change, so it’s useful to reflect on them every 6 to 12 months. 

With clarity on our values and what it looks like to live them out, we gain a compass for our actions.

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Our values drive us and anchor us. We experience integrity when we act in alignment with them. And when our actions aren’t aligned with our values, we feel bad—emotionally, and sometimes physically. We might even think, It makes me feel sick to my stomach to have to do this. Psycho-neuroimmunologists have found that our immune systems are strengthened or depleted by the degree of integrity with which we live our lives. So when an inner voice says, This isn’t me, listen closely. That voice might indicate that your actions don’t reflect a core value. 
When we aren’t living in alignment with our values, we can even experience what feels like an identity crisis. This is why when a transformational coach explores ways of being with an educator they’re coaching, we listen for when someone might be experiencing a breakdown between who they think they are (“I’m a compassionate person!”) and how they show up—shouting at children or dismissing parent concerns. Any time you hear a coachee say, “This isn’t who I am,” it’s a sign that they are experiencing a breakdown in how they live out their values. 
Another key concept about values is that for many of us, what we determine to be our core values are espoused or aspirational values rather than enacted values. For example, I might say I value courage, but rarely take any risks. Acknowledging the discrepancy between espoused and lived values can allow a person to shift their behavior. 

How to Coach Core Values 

When I begin a coaching relationship, I ask the coachee to engage in the core values exercise on my website, often during our first session. After clients identify their three most important core values, I ask how they’re feeling. Usually, they say things like, “I feel clearer. This felt good.” It’s a relief to remember what matters most. However, this awareness can also raise uncomfortable feelings if someone recognizes that they haven’t been living out their values. They might sigh and say, “I really value creativity, but I feel like I haven’t done anything creative in years.” 
Next, I say something like, “Tell me a story about a time at work when your actions reflected one of these values” or “Tell me about a decision you recently made that reflects a core value.” I want to know what it means to this educator to hold a value like family or justice—and the best way to understand that is through an example. After they share that story, I’ll say, “Tell me another story, if you’re willing, about a time when your actions did not reflect an important value.” This question gives me insight into a person’s self-awareness and areas for growth. 

Our goal should be alignment between our daily behaviors and our vision for who we want to be.

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I sometimes guide the person I’m coaching to reflect on how they spend their time (or money), since that often suggests the degree to which a person is living from their core values. It can be uncomfortable to see the discrepancies between our espoused values and our lived values—but there almost always is a discrepancy. When a coach helps a coachee recognize that gap, they can acknowledge and normalize the feelings that might arise, and then coach toward closing that gap. Coaching core values can sound like:
  • Tell me how the way you’ve been spending your time reflects, or doesn’t reflect, your values.
  • I’m hearing you describe a day that went really well. Which of your core values were you enacting?
  • I know one of your core values is kindness. I just observed you shout at a student. Do you feel there was a breakdown between who you want to be and your actions?
  • What opportunities might you have next week to live from your values? Can you anticipate a specific situation when you’ll have an opportunity to intentionally ­demonstrate one of them?
  • I hear that you were triggered by her behavior. Do you think any of your core values felt violated?
  • I know that one of your core values is honesty. I’m hearing you express a belief that seems to conflict with that value. Do you see that?
Identifying values is one thing; taking the time, energy, and space to bring them to life is another. As educators, we often get pulled into behaviors that may not align with our values. But by identifying our values, we can use them as a filter to make decisions about our actions. Our goal should be alignment between our daily behaviors and our vision for who we want to be. In achieving such alignment, we build emotional resilience.
End Notes

1 Patterson, J. L., & Kelleher, P. (2005). Resilient school leaders. ASCD.

2 Segerstrom, S. C, & Miller G. E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601–630.

Elena Aguilar is president of Bright Morning Consulting, a sought-after speaker and presenter, and author of many books, including The Art of Coaching (Jossey-Bass, 2013) and Coaching for Equity (Jossey-Bass, 2020).


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