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My former school district used the acronym “CARES” to remind its staff members of some of the important points of leadership: communication, appreciation, respect, encouragement, and studentcenteredness. We probably should have put student-centeredness first, but then it would have spelled “scare” and that just didn’t work quite as well!

One of the core areas of the Breaking Ranks framework is personalization. Although principals most often, as they should, think that personalization means personalizing the environment for students, principals also need to consider adults in the building and ask themselves, “What am I doing as a school leader to build a culture of appreciation and recognition for my staff?” In his book The Six Secrets of Change, Michael Fullan declares the first rule to be “Love your employees.” Although he explains that the secret is larger than just caring for employees, showing appreciation on a regular basis is a good place to start.

One of my favorite “philosophers” is Winnie-the-Pooh. In Pooh’s Little Instruction Book, he reminds readers that “a little Consideration, a little Thought for Others, makes all the difference.” There are many behaviors that effective leaders engage in that can put Pooh’s philosophy into practice. First, they can take stock by asking:

  • How well do I know my staff members? Do I know about and am I concerned about what’s going on in their lives outside of school that could affect their work?
  • Do I prevent instructional time from being interrupted or am I the one doing the interrupting?
  • Am I aware of what’s happening around the school? Don’t be like the teacher in the book The Geranium on the Window Sill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On by Albert Cullum.
  • Do I run interference when a staff member is faced with unreasonable demands from parents? Am I the head cheerleader when it comes to talking about my school and my staff members with community members?
  • Do I regularly recognize staff members for their accomplishments?
  • Do I recognize their efforts to go above and beyond the expected in their work with students?

The title of Neila Conner’s book— If You Don’t Feed the Teachers, They Eat the Students—says it all. If principals want to create a personalized environment for both students and staff members, then they must recognize accomplishments and make appreciation a natural part of their leadership style. And it’s not just teachers—the important thing to remember is to recognize all staff members on an ongoing basis. Office staff, aides, custodians, cafeteria workers, and other staff members are just as vital to the functioning of a school and deserve recognition every bit as much (if not more, at times) as teachers.

Here are some ideas—taken from middle level and high school principals across the country—for showing your appreciation:

  • Put a “first day of school” treat on their desks to greet them the first day that they spend with students. Bottled water is a big hit. A personal note from the administrators is also a nice touch.
  • Give new staff members a certificate of survival after their first week. Attach a pack of LifeSavers or a Kudos bar.
  • Start your meetings with “accentuate the positive”: give everyone an opportunity to share something personal or professional about themselves or someone on staff.
  • Give a raffle ticket to everyone who showed up on time for a meeting. Hold the drawing at the end of the meeting. Raffle off posters, pens or pencils, office supplies, items the and make appreciation a natural part of their leadership style. Give a raffle ticket to everyone who showed up on time for a meeting. Hold the drawing at the end of the meeting. Raffle off posters, pens or pencils, office supplies, items collected at conferences, and other small prizes.
  • Spotlight a “staff member of the week” by including a short article and picture in an e-mail or in your weekly staff newsletter. Staff members can nominate their colleagues by writing up why the person should be selected. The winner can also be rewarded with his or her favorite morning beverage and a pastry that is delivered by the principal, a reserved parking space, a sign for their door, an item of school clothing, and so on. Over the course of the year, everyone who gets nominated should be selected.
  • Give silly awards for mundane things, such as standing bus duty in the rain, faithfully greeting students at the classroom door, or always wearing a smile. It’s a good way to recognize positive behavior and encourage it in others.
  • Have a box in the staff room for people to write thank-you notes or praises to others. Read the notes at a staff meeting.
  • Create perfect attendance awards to give recognition to those who had perfect attendance for the period of time between meetings. (Don’t count days that have been used for professional development or jury duty.) Special awards can be given for a semester or a year’s worth of perfect attendance.
  • Celebrate with food—have holiday breakfasts, lunch potlucks, and so forth. Try a baked potato bar for St. Patrick’s Day, a Mexican buffet (with nonalcoholic margaritas) for Cinco de Mayo, Chinese food for Chinese New Year, pies for “pi” day (March 14), or sausage and bratwurst for Octoberfest—be creative in your celebrations.
  • Organize a carwash day—have administrators and parents wash staff members’ cars during the day.
  • Hire a massage therapist to give neck and shoulder massages during lunch. Parents who are massage or physical therapists may be willing to donate their time for this.
  • Give out boxes of Cracker Jack (or put a big bowl in the staff room) along with notes that say, “This is a crackerjack staff!”
  • Celebrate payday with lagniappe. Use fun themes, such as We’re Nuts About You, You’re the Apple of Our Eyes, Pumpkin Payday, Smile and Say Cheese, and It’s Not Easy Being Green.
  • Make food a part of meetings whenever possible. Always have food on the staff table the morning after late evenings, such as conferences and open house nights.
  • Make special deliveries. Put together a cart with coffee, tea, and juice and deliver a drink to each staff member in his or her classroom.
  • Deliver paychecks to classrooms in costume or give staff members pieces of cake with their checks.
  • Bring an espresso machine to school. Make and deliver lattes staff members to “espresso” your appreciation.
  • Give brownie points—take someone a brownie to acknowledge something special.
  • Start a “Way to Go, Cup of Joe” program—include a certificate a latte when you write a positive note.
  • Give coupons for free time or duties—let an administrator do the staff member’s duty or take over the class.
  • Designate a bulletin board in staff room for posting information about personal and professional successes and accomplishments.
  • Hold a “Can’t Talk about Education” social—an event at which anyone caught talking about school, students, or educational business is fined $1 to help pay the treats.

There are many, many ways to express appreciation. The important thing is to remember to do it—often! As Mother Teresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

Patti Kinney ( associate director of middle level services NASSP, a former principal of Talent (OR) School, and the 2003 MetLife/NASSP National Middle Level Principal of the Year.