Stephen Covey's 7 Habits juggernaut has been making the transition from the boardroom to the classroom.
Muriel Summers's Aha! moment occurred when she took the last seat in the room. John Bell's came in a rush of cascading water. For Joseph Stoner, the lightbulb went on when he heard yet another gripe.
These three school administrators all realized that bringing the ideas behind Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People into their schools could improve the culture and learning, as well as the lives, of both students and staff.
Thousands of schools now employ seven habits materials, ranging from the original Stephen Covey book to his son Sean Covey's books for children and adolescents to the more comprehensive materials offered through FranklinCovey's Leader in Me program for schools, which provides lesson plans, videos, and even consultants.
"We never expected this," says Meg Thompson, FranklinCovey's general manager of education practice. "We've just codified what was cocreated with educators. We've put seven universal principles in a pattern for practical application."
A Simple Start
As intuitive as the seven habits are-and not one of them would qualify as particularly original-they've ignited improvements in schools nationwide and beyond. It all started in 1999, when Summers grabbed the last open seat at a Stephen Covey speaking engagement.
As principal of A. B. Combs, a magnet leadership elementary school in Raleigh, North Carolina, that was in danger of losing its magnet status and funding, Summers naturally wondered whether these concepts could help her students. When Covey exited the stage, Summers worked up the courage to approach him and asked, "Do you think children could learn this?"
"I don't know why not," he said. "Let me know if you do something."
Summers did do something, and Combs became a model for implementing the seven habits in schools, as did Summers's role in the effort, inspiring Stephen Covey's book, The Leader in Me. His son Sean says the pivotal factor in determining whether a seven habits program will be effective is the principal's commitment.
At Combs it starts from the moment kids walk in the door. Teachers greet kindergartners with "Good morning, class of 2024," so they "begin with the end in mind" (Habit 2), says Summers. The curriculum has a seven habits angle, and the school's decision-making process encourages children's initiative ("Be proactive," Habit 1) and working together ("Synergize," Habit 6) by allowing them to take part in budget meetings and interview prospective teachers.
Test scores at Combs, which has a diverse and largely low-income student body, have increased steadily over the past 12 years. The school, which had been struggling, now has a waiting list and a wall of awards, and in 2006 was named the top magnet school in the United States.
The Port Jervis Story
For John Bell it all started with a visit to the boys' bathroom of the Maine-Endwell CSD high school outside Binghamton, New York. He had traveled to the upstate district in 2009 to learn about its professional learning communities, but for the moment, he was faced with an overflowing sink. Three boys in the restroom did something Bell found uncharacteristic for high school kids-rather than leaving the mess, they took charge, rushing to find a janitor before the water flooded the hallways.
"I wanted to bring some of that culture back here," says Bell, referring to the Port Jervis School District, in Orange County, New York, where he is assistant superintendent for instruction.
Joseph Stoner, Maine-Endwell's superintendent at the time, told Bell that the district used principles and programs derived from both Stephen Covey's book and his son Sean's related books for children and adolescents.
"Why didn't I think of that?" Bell thought. After all, he had taken a seven habits training at a school where he had previously worked.
Port Jervis had just begun to implement seven habits in the schools last year when John Xanthis, the district superintendent, encountered a colleague, Pine Bush, New York, superintendent Philip Steinberg, at a conference. As Steinberg related how he had used the seven habits to turn around a failing, unsafe Brooklyn middle school, Xanthis's confidence in his own district's experiment began to blossom.
Now, Xanthis sees the seven habits material as beneficial for children of all ages and for faculty and staff as well, and as a big step forward from the potpourri of character-education efforts like Caught Being Good and Word of the Month.
Over the past year, 105 Port Jervis faculty members have taken seven habits training courses. Two district elementary schools and a middle school have introduced their own versions of a seven habits curriculum this year, using Leader in Me lesson plans and materials.
Different Ages, Different Strategies
On a recent day, Kara Raap, a fifth-grade teacher at Port Jervis's Hamilton Bicentennial Elementary School, showed her class The Dash, a film that she says jolted her when she took the seven habits training. The title refers to the dash between the date of birth and date of death on a tombstone, suggesting life's brevity and the necessity of using time purposefully. Hence the seven habits, which emphasize accomplishment, organization, empathy, and cooperation.
After discussing the film, students wrote about their goals in their Leader in Me workbooks. Many listed making honor roll; others sought to improve their relationships. One boy listed the goal, "Be happy about my new baby sister and my crazy dog," and a girl wrote simply, "Lie less."
Across the hall, Emily Mesnick taught her fourth graders hand signals for each habit. "Rather than saying, ‘Be quiet,' I say, ‘Be proactive,' and they make the signal. There's less micromanaging," says Mesnick. "They internalize what they should do." And most important, "Children say they are happier this year."
According to principal Lynda Korycki, discipline referrals have dropped noticeably at the school just three months into the program, and there are more days with no referrals at all. When she does have a disciplinary conversation with a student, using seven habits language helps her in "cutting through" the situation.
She anticipates the effects of the seven habits program will persist. "It's a way of running your life." The ideas have energized cooperation among staff. And with children, she says, "it's more lasting because it's not a particular way of looking for good behavior."
At Port Jervis Middle School, students learn the habits in a half-year pass-fail course taught by four teachers who collaborate on curriculum.
"Some don't take it as seriously as their other courses," says teacher Scott Spears. "But they reveal a lot. Some are very involved and want to talk more."
On a recent day, students did an exercise where they interpreted what their classmates' expressions meant and wrote about times when they knew someone's feelings before they spoke to develop Habit 5, "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
"With texting and Facebook they often don't understand each other," says Spears. "Face-to-face is important."
Port Jervis High School has no seven habits program yet, but next year half of lunch period will be devoted to it. Clubs and athletic teams will weave the habits into their activities as well, explains Xanthis.
Meanwhile, says Bell, faculty members savor the results of synergy. While other school districts ponder how to make the changes required by an onslaught of state initiatives, Port Jervis's staff-practiced in curriculum collaboration, thanks to seven habits and the professional learning community protocol-already has a plan in place.
Maine-Endwell's Modified Use
At Maine-Endwell, a smaller and more affluent district than Port Jervis, academic performance is good and graduation rates are high, says Jason Van Fossen, who took over from Joseph Stoner as district superintendent this year. The circumstances may be different, but the seven habits program has been effective in much the same way: It's improved students' character and the way they conduct themselves. There's been a "dramatic decrease in harassment and bullying and a social leveling," Van Fossen says. The social hierarchy that previously left freshmen vulnerable has receded from the halls and cafeteria.
Stoner had experimented with seven habits in the schools as early as 1996, when he was high school principal in another district. Faculty meetings, he said, often became "gripe sessions" among teachers about freshmen being unprepared for high school. He had just read Covey's book and improvised a way to entwine the habits with the freshman curriculum, teaching the principles to the school's "high flyers," or natural student leaders, and having them teach other students. He brought the program to Maine-Endwell in 2005, when he noticed a similar negative undertow at faculty meetings.
In the meantime, the interaction between Muriel Summers and Stephen Covey had led to the birth of the systematized Leader in Me program. These materials struck Stoner as "artificial," though, and the district decided not to use them. Instead, voluntary seven habits courses, taught by trained administrators, are offered to the staff for free. Teachers integrate the principles in classes in their own ways, to the extent they choose. The district has done well going its own route. Sean Covey says Maine-Endwell's high school program is impressively "creative," and the district's Homer Brink Elementary School is on track to becoming a seven habits model "Lighthouse School."
As part of the program at Homer Brink Elementary, students take a 40-minute weekly class in character education. The teacher, Barbara Lake, engages them in activities or has them read stories that demonstrate the habits-how to resolve an argument in a "win-win" fashion (Habit 4), for instance.
The seven habits shouldn't be relegated to the classroom, though. "Forty other things we do in the building are just as important," says principal Bill Dundon. He models proactive behavior, such as picking up stray paper in the hall. As one brightly colored hallway poster puts it, "Character is what you do when no one's watching."
Even kindergartners need to set goals, so, as at A. B. Combs in North Carolina, they "begin with the end in mind." The goal may be something like aiming to listen to their teacher more. In second grade, goals are posted on the wall. By fifth grade, students have "data notebooks," where they track their progress on two or three goals for five minutes a day, supplemented by brief weekly teacher conferences.
In Maine-Endwell's middle school, students lead activities demonstrating the habits during homeroom. Members of the student council and their alternates, 60 kids in all, receive seven habits training. At quarterly meetings, student leaders address issues such as bullying with seven habits language and tools. For instance, they go to each social studies class to discuss the effects of behavior on one's "personal bank account," seven habits lingo for self-esteem.
Some seven habits work is wrapped around coursework, depending on the interest of the teacher. The focus, though, is on Common Core standards, says principal Rick Otis. After four years of "serious" attention to the seven habits, he's still reserving judgment on the program. "We're still tweaking what we do. We don't have a way to measure its effectiveness. It's one tool among others."
At the district's high school, the seven habits base of operations is study hall. Previously the province of monitors, who were charged with keeping students quiet and well-behaved, now teachers oversee upperclassmen who have volunteered to act as mentors for the freshmen. The mentors teach seven habits skills over the first 10 weeks of the year, using Sean Covey's book The Six Most Important Decisions You'll Ever Make and their own experiences.
"It doesn't work if it's canned," says Van Fossen.
Perhaps also, as Stephen Covey points out in his book, people only grasp the seven habits when they impart them to others. "I didn't really pay attention to the seven habits until I taught them," says student mentor Aubrey Balzani. "I had the book in junior high but didn't pay attention."
"Helping people gives me a sense of accomplishment," says Laura Jones, another mentor. "I jump out of my comfort zone talking to strangers."
Not everyone thinks it's appropriate to inculcate Covey's seven habits in the schools. Stoner, who brought the seven habits to Maine-Endwell, concedes that some staff members hoped the habits would leave with him when he retired last year. They feel that it imposes values on students. Van Fossen has continued with the program, though, and about half the staff has completed the voluntary trainings so far.
"A parenting book would have the same expectations," says Van Fossen. He agrees with Covey that the seven habits are just traditional values in a new package. Whether kids adopt those values, in the end, is up to them. "It's not cookie-cutter, not forced. You can't force someone to get values."
Experts on children's social development see merit in the seven habits, but with some caveats. "It seems like good material. It depends how it's used," says Marvin Berkowitz, professor of character education at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "Taking good ideas and going into depth" can be productive, he says, but if the ideas are presented didactically, with an authoritarian approach, or through punishments and rewards, it's "a waste of time."
Just back from a conference on moral education in Taiwan, Berkowitz recalls arguments among Chinese educators about whether to teach Confucian or Western values in schools. Most lists of traditional values are good ones, he says. "The hard part is how to use them. Kids' and teachers' voices matter in choosing values and running the school. Ownership is crucial."
3 Books That "Sharpen the Saw"
1. In Good to Great, Jim Collins uncovers the techniques that lifted 11 Fortune 500 companies up to the next level of performance.
2. Daniel Pink's Drive stresses the role of job satisfaction in motivating all employees to succeed.
3. Writer and surgeon Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto reveals how using lists can bridge the gap between what we know and what we do.