If you are familiar with the StrengthsFinder assessment tool (also known as CliftonStrengths), I am: Achiever, Competition, Focus, Ideation, Relator. For those of you who are not familiar with the StrengthsFinder results, this means that I am a point A to point B type of person. There’s no time for drama, small talk, or celebration. At least, that was the type of leader I was when I began as a principal.
As the principal of a school, you are the one who sets the tone for the year and allocates resources to move initiatives forward; there isn’t anyone else on the campus with this type of authority. So, what do you do when you know most of your campus needs the positive reinforcement of celebration throughout the year, but you don’t necessarily enjoy celebrating? Two options that resonated most with me were systemizing the process and delegating to those who do like to celebrate.
Here’s what I’ve learned over time: everyone needs to be recognized. Some specifically need more positive recognition when this area of emotional health was neglected in the past; some need to know they are simply being seen in their effort; some need it because they are competitive, and it energizes them to know they are accomplishing a goal. There is a reason we have national and cultural holidays – to stop and mindfully celebrate. When building a positive school culture, the leader needs to work in celebrations so that we stop and recognize all the hard work we put in each day.
You can systemize celebrations by looking through your master calendar and finding times when your students take an assessment, have a competition, or simply schedule a time to celebrate whatever small victories were achieved during each month. If it’s scheduled, it will get celebrated. If not, it will most likely get ignored. Deep down, I never wanted my students or staff to feel neglected in their accomplishments; I just didn’t know how things should be celebrated. That brings me to delegation.
Typically, you have those on your staff who love to celebrate, and they are great at it! Many times, they just need permission and a little money (out of your budget but mostly from community donations) to carry out those celebrations. However, they need to hear from you that it is a priority and that you are there to support their efforts. Most of the time these are your counselors; they love loving on others! When empowering them to do something they love, they get a bounce in their step and energy to do more (really, who doesn’t). So often in education, our counselors are put in a position to focus on many priorities other than what they have a degree (or two) for and feel passionate about. These are the kind of individuals on your support team I encourage you to seek out.
When I arrived at my last school, a very low performing one, I saw that they had a student recognition ceremony listed on the master calendar every 9-weeks and I asked what that entailed. When the response was very non-emotional and weak, I asked if holding that event was effective. The person who oversaw that event looked at me like I was speaking a double-secret language. She obviously was not emotionally connected to the purpose of recognizing students and welcoming in the parents to participate in celebrating their children. She was the wrong person for that job!
I quickly found someone who LOVED doing what this event was designed for and we moved it to every 6-weeks and changing many of the details. It became a huge motivator for our school culture. Delegating this task to the right person, laying out the vision of how I wanted it to run, and letting them run with it changed one thing on the calendar but gave our school culture a major boost! Celebration on our campus changed from one person’s half-hearted attempt to recognize students and staff, to students working harder in the classroom, recognizing more students than ever, five times the parent participation, broadcasting the event live in the classrooms (which maximized instruction time), all of our support staff (cafeteria workers, custodians, office staff, etc.) becoming cheerleaders during the event, students receiving hand-written certificates with notes of love from their teachers, friends, ME, other teachers, and on and on. Delegating to the right person changes everything! This was
another way to systemize celebrating. It was something we did well, and we did it routinely. It became part of our culture simply because we systemized it.
A great example of small, consistent, and systemized celebration simply requires an ice chest and chocolate (I know many of you have done this before). This is when you fill up an ice chest full of drinks, buy a bunch of candy bars, then walk around the school on a Friday and pass them out to staff. I loved doing this but found that I just didn’t have time to execute this consistently. Therefore, I delegated it to the counselors, and it was 10x better because of the energy they brought when doing it. When I did it, I loved it and it was a good boost to the staff. However, I must admit, it was another thing on my agenda that I checked off. Once delegated to the counselors, they scheduled it throughout the week (versus only Fridays), they added little motivational sayings, they brought along students, etc. They loved this time and brought so much more creativity to the act than I ever could, and the staff benefited much more from their boost of mid-week energy/recognition. Sometimes you need to let go and provide the opportunity to celebrate to someone who can make a deeper impact.
Another example of systemized celebration was our biannual BBQ. I liked to BBQ (as did most of my head custodians) and we both would rather do that for a day and take a break from the day-to-day things. So, once a quarter the two of us would beg/borrow/steal a BBQ pit large enough to fit enough meat for a 100 people, find a shady spot near the teachers’ lounge and spend a day outside cooking for our staff to celebrate our campus’s small victories- benchmark scores, increased attendance, you name it! I could always get my PTA to get their volunteers to take care of all the side dishes and my business partners would want to get involved and take care of the drinks. The staff loved it and all the students saw us celebrating which modeled for
them the need to do so. I realized our actions were always on display with the students: how we greeted each other, how we handled someone yelling at us, and how we celebrated.
I would also invite our school police department and maintenance workers to join us. This helped to foster a positive reputation in the district and spread the word that great things were happening at my campus. By great, I mean that we were doing things other schools were not for their staff and students. We were showing appreciation for the hard work of everyone contributing to the effort of educating our students. It’s not just teachers who make learning happen. Kids must be fed; they deserve a clean learning environment; the air conditioning and plumbing all must work! To me, cooking out allowed me to show my appreciation to all who
were involved in our success and model to my staff that I appreciated the entire village who supported our work.
After serving three different schools and three wonderful staffs, I learned how to incorporate celebrations into the year. I’m not saying that I enjoyed celebrating or that it was an intuitive way for me to approach any given challenge. However, over the years I learned how important it was to my staff and students, so I moved it further up on the priority list in initiatives to improve student achievement and keep student and staff morale high. I learned that if I knew the data better, I could foster individual conversations with students and bring light to their day simply through verbal recognition and appreciation. The same goes with teachers and staff members! While some teachers hated being recognized in front of others, I’ve never recognized a custodian or paraprofessional at a faculty meeting who didn’t appreciate the experience.
If you are like me, send an email out asking for volunteers to be the cheerleaders for the year. Set up a meeting. Give them a budget and get out of their way! It’s important. You don’t have to personally enjoy it, but you need to prioritize it because it matters to your students, staff, and community. Recognition and appreciation can go such a long way.