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The Heartbeat of a School: How Core Values Shape Culture and Performance

The Heartbeat of a School: How Core Values Shape Culture and Performance

Living out core values in the course of everyday organizational life provides a foundation for a flourishing workplace culture. Seeing evidence of core values in action is different than having a set of core values that were developed in some past strategic planning exercise.

As I work with leaders in Christian education to create flourishing schools with engaged faculty and staff, I have the opportunity to observe the power of core values to impact behavior, and ultimately, performance. While this application of core values and challenges may be unique to Christian education, the principles of core values apply to all organizations.

At one school I visited, the core values were evident as I pulled into the parking lot, with banners calling attention to their values. Then, right inside the building, I could see a list of the core values and the mission statement for the school. But these were more than just fancy communication pieces, these values were woven into actions and conversations throughout the school. It was clear that faculty, staff, and leaders were united around a shared sense of workplace culture. There was consistency and stability in their shared beliefs, in the behaviors that flowed out of those beliefs, and in the resulting performance outcomes. In Road to Flourishing, Al Lopus, cofounder & board chair of Best Christian Workplaces, defines culture as the shared beliefs and values of a group, expressed in priorities, decisions, and above all behaviors.

Contrast this with another school, where I held a series of Discovery Group conversations with staff and faculty. I noticed that values that were espoused by one group were dismissed by another. As I debriefed the head of the school and asked him about core values, he led me into a small room where there were beautifully lettered declarations of their core values. The frames were dusty, and I hadn’t seen agreement on those core values demonstrated in real-life situations around the school. These values may have been aspirations from a prior generation, but they were not guiding behavior today—and they certainly were not “core” in terms of codifying shared beliefs as to how they did things around there.

The challenge for leaders in Christian education is to stay true to core values as they adapt to current pressures.

Pressures on Christian Schools

Currently, there is surging demand for Christian education in the K-12 sector. Many parents who might not have considered Christian schools in the past are now interested in Christian education for their children.

Growth can be a good thing for schools, but it is challenging to manage the impact of growth on facilities, staffing, and mission focus. Some of the influx of families who are seeking Christian education may not be fully aware of the mission of Christian schools and the emphasis that a school might place on core values and Christian discipleship. Families may be coming for an alternative to other education opportunities in their area, without necessarily agreeing with the core values of the school.

A school with strong clarity on its core values and a focus on its mission can make sure that both admissions and hiring decisions reinforce its values and mission, rather than just filling spots. One true test of this is to examine how a school approaches filling grade-level openings. A core value will be just as important in shaping admissions decisions in January as it is in July.

Why Clarity on Core Values Matter

Core values function as guardrails that keep us safe as we move through changes and challenges. These guardrails are especially important in a season of fast-paced changes. Clearly-articulated core values give leaders, employees, and families a central focus to hold to as they move through a quickly changing world.

If core values are not regularly reinforced, an organization can slowly steer away from its foundation. Once this movement goes far enough, it is hard to get back to the value-based center.

Even if an organization has no stated core values, each team or group of people will develop practices that reflect some sort of common values. In a leadership vacuum, people align with someone and create norms of what behaviors are “in” or “out.” These values are lived out but not necessarily articulated, making it even harder to steer back to a common center point. To be clear, every leader and every employee has core values, though not everyone explicitly articulates these values. Flourishing organizations work through the conversations necessary to articulate, align, and operationalize their values.

Practical Steps to Reinforce Core Values


If core values really matter, then leaders and department managers will intentionally and regularly communicate about core values. Each month the staff meeting can focus on one particular core value. Or an example of living out a core value can be included in a regular email from the head of school to parents. Regular communication about core values highlights their importance and ensures that they are not forgotten on some plaque in the corner of the breakroom. Core values should be top-of-mind and evident in everyday decisions and habits.


A flourishing school that is living out its core values regularly recognizes and celebrates faculty and staff for actions that reinforce their core values. This recognition can happen in large ways through awards, or in small ways through hand-written notes. You can equip everyone to recognize positive behaviors by giving all the employees notecards and encouraging them to give notes of affirmation to fellow employees who are living out the core values.

Particularly in a school setting, make sure that recognition and celebration extend to the support staff. While teacher appreciation days are often featured and supported by parents, the support staff are also part of achieving the mission of the school. Be sure to include all facets of your school in regular appreciation and celebration. Remember, you get the behavior that you celebrate.


The best-of-the-best in terms of flourishing culture also includes core values in their performance appraisal system. You can engage faculty and staff in defining the fundamental behaviors that display core values and then include these behavioral factors in performance appraisals. While schools are great at having a rubric for evaluating student performance, they may not be as adept at applying a rubric to employee performance.


As a leader, you elevate the importance of core values when you are zealous about their application to decision-making and day-to-day operations. For example, alignment with core values is probably part of your job descriptions for faculty and staff hiring. On March 1, when you are considering openings that you might have for the following fall, screening candidates for core values is easy to implement. When you have an opening on August 15 and school starts in two weeks, do you keep a high focus on core values in this hire? The risk in not elevating core values, and keeping them as essential, is that a poor hire dilutes your values, and over time can impact employee engagement.

Sadly, many once-healthy schools have been harmed by failing to elevate core values that intentionally guide and restrain decision-making. A slow degradation in this area often goes undetected until the signs and symptoms appear—often during a shakeup in leadership.

Next Steps

The interest in Christian education presents a great opportunity for flourishing schools to influence the next generation of Christians to be salt and light in a culture that is desperate for people of Christlike character. However, to fully realize this opportunity that God has provided, growth cannot dilute the values and distinctives that make Christian education fruitful for shaping the next generation of Jesus followers.

Start now to engage your faculty, staff, and families in regular dialogue about core values. Highlight everyday examples of these values in action and include consideration of core values in your decision-making processes.

If you need help defining and reinforcing core values, Best Christian Workplaces has developed a resource for your leadership team. Download “A Healthy Culture: How Values Build Consistency and Security” today!

The recently released State of the Christian Workforce by Best Christian Workplaces has a section dedicated to trends in Christian Education. Download the report for exclusive insights into employee engagement and workplace health within Christian-led workplaces, including Christian schools.



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