New Teachers

Teaching According to Your Core Values

These tips garnered from in-depth teacher interviews may help you discover or rediscover the values that guide your work.

July 8, 2024
PeopleImages / iStock

Teaching is ethical work, demanding constant attention to how the smallest actions affect individuals and a community. Seeking to document the subtle brilliance of teachers as they navigate ethics, I spent two years interviewing teachers, first in a study and then in a podcast called Teaching From an Ethical Center, about how their ethics live in their daily work.

I expected to find evidence of teachers’ nuanced and brilliant attention to ethics, and I did. An unexpected by-product of these interviews was that the interviews themselves served as a professional development. Here I tell the story of first-grade teacher Ana (a pseudonym) to capture the potential and power of the process. 

As I asked Ana about her teaching, it was clear that this relatively new teacher cares deeply about students. She is creative, and her attention to knowing each child informs her daily decisions. She plans for the intersecting demands of children’s emotional and intellectual selves. Committed to constant reflection and growth, Ana eagerly seeks suggestions from everyone from the guidance counselor to the school principal. In other words, Ana teaches from her ethical center, knowing both what she values and, in many cases, how to live those values in her daily practice.

But despite this powerful portrait of a successful new teacher, when asked how she was teaching to her values on a daily basis, Ana was quick to volunteer that when it came to her commitment to meeting individual needs, “right now, I don’t feel I am. What I hope to be able to do in the future and I don’t do right now is, I would love to give my students preferred seating. I’m not sure with this class if it would work... I think it’s fun when kids are able to choose where they can sit.”

Ana went on to say that preferred seating can help students have “fun” and do better work because they get to speak with their friends as they work. She concluded, “So I’m hoping eventually that I can get to that point. That is something I value—allowing them to make those choices and learn from even if it’s not the best choice they can learn from that.”

The degree of thought and wisdom Ana has devoted to this quandary is striking.  She recognizes that preferred seating is more fun, a way to put children at ease to enhance their learning and happiness, and that choice offers children a chance to make small mistakes and learn.

As she elaborated, Ana also voiced the understanding that children need different options, and protecting this is a human right. An authentic dilemma emerges. Preferred seating is better most of the time, but the capacity to take this responsibility must be nurtured. 

In expressing her commitments and dilemma, Ana demonstrated how values live in daily practice as she teaches from an ethical center. Yet, as her quandary indicates, ethical teaching is complicated and not straightforward work. How might we help teachers like Ana do this work? Through Ana and others, I’ve come to see that the following interview protocol can help. 

Part one

A values wall (inspired by an activity in Fred Korthagen’s book Linking Practice and Theory: The Pedagogy of Realistic Teacher Education) offers the chance for a person to brainstorm their core values by considering both what their values are and how they fit together. For example, some people arrange their values in a circular formation to show that the values are all equal. Others create a “wall” where those most key are at the foundation from which the rest build.

  • Using a digital whiteboard, index cards, or some other easily movable material, list the values that inform your teaching.
  • Arrange them in a manner that expresses how they interact with each other.

Part two 

After brainstorming using the values wall, the next step is to interview the teacher. In peer mentoring, teachers can even use the same protocol to interview each other. Though it may feel awkward, I strongly encourage the interviewer to simply respond with nods and restrict any follow-up to brief clarifying questions.

  • What values inform your teaching?
  • Can you please give specific examples of how these values live in your own practice?
  • Can you describe where you picked up these values? What informs them?
  • How are your values reinforced and/or challenged in your current teaching placement?
  • What supports reinforce/stay true to your values? 

Through this process, I have learned so much about teaching—the core values that inform teachers, such as care, inclusion, and attention, and the many ways these values are realized. Yet, unexpectedly I’ve found that these interviews have also served as professional development for the teachers in three ways:

  • Teachers report that they reflect more on their core values and focus more on aligning actions to their values before and after the interview.
  • Teachers report feeling heard and affirmed in the interviews, which helps them return to daily challenges.
  • From the interviews, I can offer specific tactical advice that the teacher might implement because I know their goals and teaching style.

Returning to Ana, when she expressed at the start of our interview that she wasn’t living up to her values to the extent that she desired, as an experienced teacher and teacher educator I so wanted to rush in. First, I saw a vulnerable new teacher and wanted to assure Ana about everything I had already heard she was doing.

Further, I heard a question, “How can I implement flexible seating?” and I immediately wanted to chime in with suggestions for how Ana might meet this goal. Yet, I was talking to Ana within the confines of a formal interview process as part of a study, and the protocol pushed me to stay quiet. So I spent the next 40 minutes asking the above questions and then, aside from clarifying questions, listening.

I’m so glad I did. As Ana talked in response to my questions, I saw a much deeper insight into her core values, the practices she was already doing, and the subtle area where she needed support. It was only then, at the end of the interview, that I broke protocol and offered one small piece of very precise advice about seating in the form of a question, “What would happen if you tried…?” Ana ran with the idea, adding in exactly how she would adapt and try it with energy and confidence. 

While Ana began the interview doubting her capacity to live her values, she now stated, “So I really think all my values are definitely coming into play this school year.”

I am refraining from sharing what Ana and I discovered together about flexible seating because the key here is that we were able to discover something together based on what mattered most to Ana, the teacher, and that would honor and support her particular students. I hope the more flexible protocol will help others do the same.  

You’ll find more about how teachers teach from their ethical center in my book Teaching from an Ethical Center: Practical Wisdom for Daily Instruction, as well as this article about the importance of relationship-building and student choice.

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • New Teachers

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.