Got spirit?! Let’s hear it!”

The traditional rallying cry of high school sports is a great way to garner school spirit. But is it enough? One group of kids in Ambler, PA, wanted more.

When Gillian Horn was a junior at Wissahickon High School, she and some friends began to consider that other teams and school groups besides the boys’ football and basketball teams deserved to have support. Rather than simply trying to boost student interest in sports teams with a pep rally, posters, or announcements encouraging students to come out for Friday’s game, Horn and her friends formed a group called Following Activities ‘n’ Sports (FANS)—students who would attend team events and support other groups at the school of about 1,400 students in suburban Philadelphia.

“What about my school’s world-ranked robotics team? How many students turned out for their events?” she asked in an article about the group, which was published about the time FANS helped get the school a special national award for sportsmanship. The group began with about eight members, but soon had 400, and representatives (often in sizable numbers) were attending all sorts of school events to support participants. Horn and other FANS founders essentially redefined school spirit.

“School spirit is about a lot more than just spirit wear and school songs,” according to the National Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). “When students feel a sense of school spirit, they may become more engaged. And if parents feel proud about what’s going on in the school community, they’ll be more likely to get involved, too.”

School spirit, no matter how it is defined, is valuable because it creates pride in a school, which in turn has benefits toward another key goal—school culture, says Daniel Steele, principal at Thompson Sixth Grade Center in Alabaster, AL, and an Alabama Association of Secondary School Principals Principal of the Year. “It’s important because effort is often a function of pride,” he says. “A healthy school culture promotes school spirit and school pride, and vice versa.”

The Benefits of School Spirit

A Harris Polls survey of 1,300 students and several hundred parents and principals showed school pride had multiple benefits.

The survey ranked students with four indicators: their self-assessment of their level of school spirit, self-reported pride in their school, propensity to get other students to be active in school events, and their plans to return to their school for special events after graduation. It found that:

  • 75 percent of students with “the most school spirit” performed better than average (only seven percent of these students performed below average).
  • Nearly 90 percent of those in that category felt very connected to their school and to their classmates.
  • Students with “the most school spirit,” identified as having the most school pride, were much more involved in all activities at their school, and had parents who were much more likely to be active in the school and aware of their student’s work in class.
  • Students with school pride, according to parents and principals, most often were happy and satisfied and had a higher self-esteem. They also more often reported having a group of good friends.

Does school spirit create these outcomes? Or do successful, happy, active students tend to have pride in their school? Principals say pride has wide-ranging benefits. Four out of 5 principals surveyed said that school pride is an important measure of their administration, according to the Harris Polls survey, and more than 90 percent said they believe it is tied to student achievement.

Defining Spirit

Most principals know their students define “school spirit” as supporting major sports teams.

A dictionary says a school’s “spirit” is its “activating or essential influencing principle.” And principals believe it as well—98 percent in the Harris Polls survey think school spirit is an important part of the school’s culture and should be something all students feel (something broadly involving the entire student body in activities that make them proud of their school and connected to it). Adults know the feeling from their own experience as part of the workplace, a church, a social group, or a neighborhood where they have felt connected—and want students to experience it too, experts say.

Annette Wallace, principal at Pocomoke High School in rural southeastern Maryland, believes that widespread school pride grows from a healthy school culture—and supports it.

“A strong culture promotes ideals that intrinsically make an individual proud to be part of an organization,” she says. “In this case, it’s a school where people feel part of a cause greater than themselves, where students and staff look out for one another and take care of each other from an instructional standpoint and from a personal standpoint.”

Wallace says that the key is creating activities or events that involve all parts of the student body. “When people feel a part of something larger than themselves, I believe they develop a strong sense of pride,” she says.

That sort of pride, experts say, leads to better behavior, better care for school facilities, and often better performance in school. If it is ignored and students have no connection or feel antipathy for their school, the opposite often occurs.

“We, of course, need to have a positive and warm school culture that students are proud to be a part of, regardless of race, religion, socio- economic status, and other characteristics. School pride and school spirit are part of that,” says Amber Rudolph, an assistant principal at Cheney Middle School in West Fargo, ND, who has been active in developing culture at her school.

Derek Pierce, principal of Casco Bay High School in Portland, ME, also believes that school spirit is broader than just support for sports teams. His school uses a variety of activities—from “clap outs” for class-wide projects to weekly school meetings and recognitions for a wide range of accomplishments.

One of his favorite events involves a schoolwide assembly where students who have been accepted to college climb a ladder and hang a pennant representing that school, cheered on by the students and staff. “School spirit is something we aspire to, but it’s more than the big game or the big performance,” Pierce says. “It’s about students feeling connected to the school and celebrating that connection and each other.”

Five Pride Enhancers

Consider these five things when looking to boost school spirit and school pride:

1. Believe it yourself—show it. Whether it is wearing the school colors (or dying your hair) and attending a football game, or showing up for an intramural pingpong match, you can show your pride in your students by being involved. “When the principal sneezes, the whole school catches a cold,” says Steele, quoting a motivational speaker’s advice. “The kids notice what I care about, and it means a lot to them.” He says a principal can increase school pride by broadening his or her personal connections to the student body by engaging with groups and segments that might not typically feel connected. Attend a poetry reading or stop to watch a skateboarder’s impromptu performance.

Rudolph says that while principals have an extremely busy schedule, they must “be present” when they connect with students, and make genuine communications with them a priority, whether it’s meeting them at the door each day, visiting classrooms, attending events, or chatting with them informally.

“Relationships are foundational,” she says, noting that they not only create that much-sought-after connection, but also create an atmosphere that people can build on and feel valued in. “These relationships become built upon trust and respect, and they create a connection to the school. It is important to be intentional about them.”

2. Create traditions. “It was an ‘aha’ moment for me when I realized how important rituals are,” says Pierce, noting that they can range from a whole school activity with parents and community to simple routines with one small group—a monthly visit to a small after-school group, a weekly visit to a special education or ESL class for a snack, or a daily walk through the cafeteria with a small contest and prize or joke. “Traditions create a connection,” Pierce says.

There are hundreds of lists of ideas for new rituals, but the challenge, experts say, is to get them in place and create energy around them, which might require tapping into several segments of the school for their ideas and a commitment to participate.

3. Get outside involvement. Some schools have alumni activities or create a hall of fame for academics, sports, and other activities based off the students who receive awards they traditionally hand out at the end of the school year. They invite alumni back, which can create pride by showing how those graduates value the school.

Doing events in the community also builds student and community pride in the school. Efforts can range from volunteering to help at shelters, nursing homes, or soup kitchens to cleaning up parks or helping with a local farmers market.

The Harris survey showed that involving parents increased a student’s connection, as did a student’s involvement in community events when they were organized through their school.

4. Get input. Wallace says principals need to listen to their staff and students with suggestions and take some “calculated risks” in order to build pride. Those contributing will feel like a part of the institution if their ideas are taken seriously and acted upon. Even if an idea is untenable, explaining the problem or coming up with a related and workable option benefits school culture, she says. Some of her students and an assistant principal suggested a “power hour” period midday for study and fitness and attention to emotional health.

“Offering students choice in the middle of the day for 60 minutes flew in the face of my beloved routine and procedures. But, I had to be willing to trust my staff and my students—and to step out and take a chance,” Wallace says. “We started ‘Your 60’ three months ago and, while there have been bumps in the road, we are already seeing many benefits.”

Willingness to listen to an idea and try a proposal, Wallace says, improved school culture through the activity itself. Plus, students knew that other voices mattered.

Chilliwack Middle School in British Columbia responded to student, parent, and staff concerns about traditional awards ceremonies. In place of that, the school developed an annual showcase, where students could show off any of their skills.

Rudolph believes it is important to regularly bring different students to the principal’s office and ask them for ideas for the school—then let them know how their input was used. Some schools ask different classes to come up with an idea for a new tradition, and then they have the whole school vote on it. Other schools look to start traditions that connect the school to its history or the community.

At Quest College Preparatory School in Edinburg, TX, the school holds a daily meeting to celebrate achievements, discuss plans, and remind students about expectations for behavior and character. The meeting time is also used to plan events that everyone knows were generated by students.

5. Make it fun. Experts say students won’t engage with an activity and bind it to school culture unless they think it is “cool” or fun, so no matter what the idea, it should be assessed through their eyes, perhaps even with a survey in the planning stages.

Wallace’s students thoroughly enjoyed and bonded through a social media blitz to get Michelle Obama to visit the school as part of its “Project 100” campaign promoting 100 percent of its students going to college. The former first lady has been an advocate for college attendance and responsible use of social media.

“It’s important for it to be valuable,” Pierce says, “but it’s just as important to have it be something that engages kids. That takes thought, but we are often surprised at how willing they are to be involved in something that really makes them part of the school.”

Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.