I recently attended three meetings where the speakers opened my eyes to the importance of telling my story within my own building. As you reflect on the great things happening in your school and district, ask yourself: How many people know about it? Are you taking the steps needed to share the good news and give the recognition and appreciation your staff and students deserve? It is a stressful time in education, and we all need encouragement. You have the ability to not only tell your district’s or school’s story but to control the narrative and additionally improve your school’s culture through that recognition.
While misuse of social media can correlate to discipline and culture issues on our campus, these tools have helped me as a leader tell our story and build community support for our school and district. I have learned to make social media my friend rather than view it as a thorn in my side. At Newton High School (NHS) in Newton, KS, we challenge our teachers to use technology like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram—the root cause of most student conflict—to extend learning and provide instruction.
Many school leaders say that one student incident can alter your whole day. At the same time, you have to make sure you get your daily responsibilities accomplished. It may seem impossible to find the time to improve culture and build relationships, but it must be done strategically and collaboratively.
Each July, I take a day to plan the entire school year, including an action plan to improve the culture and climate in my building. Part of the action plan comes from a culture survey from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker’s book, School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It. I send it out three times per year—October, February, and May—to teachers, students, and parents. At NHS, I discuss the survey results with a volunteer group called the “Sunshine Squad” made up of dependable teachers and staff who are passionate about spreading positivity and appreciation to students and staff, the district, and the community. They use social media to do so. Together, we discuss school culture regularly and make it a day-by-day task because the academic strategic plan and the educational programs will not succeed without an uplifting and motivating atmosphere.
It is just as important to have a strong culture with community members outside the walls of the school. For that reason, the strategic plan includes 24 different designated appreciation days related to education and action steps to target stakeholders outside the school building.
Here are some highlights from our culture and climate action plan:
- Monthly Community Connection: We recognize a community partner by giving a gift and social media recognition. For example, we celebrated our local hospital’s custodial staff on Custodian Appreciation Day.
- Student of the Week Program: We recognize six students each week, and each of our 11 departments can nominate twice a month. This program recognizes students for good character traits, not specific academic achievements such as grades or test scores.
- Random “Caught Ya” Recognition: When we notice a student or staff member doing something positive or displaying good character, we write them a note and give them a $5 gift card.
- Monthly Random Act of Kindness: We select one staff member in the entire district each month who does things behind the scenes and lacks the recognition they deserve. They receive a $100 gift card and a note from our administrative team.
- Community Pie Auction: At the start of the year, we bring together as many community leaders as possible for a friendly competition and fundraiser for our Sunshine Squad. Not only does this fund many of the group’s activities, but it brings our community leaders together for a united cause.
- Room Service: A couple of times a year, we deliver a drink and snack to our staff members. Random acts of appreciation are powerful.
- Fun Day Friday: Every other Friday, we have fun during lunch with yard games, karaoke, or the like. Students love these days, and it spreads the family culture we strive for. Students enjoy seeing their teachers and school leaders belting out songs.
- Birthdays: We put every staff member’s birthday on the calendar and send a quick email wishing them a happy birthday. It’s surprising how much they appreciate this.
- We Are CTE: Our CTE programs have advisory boards and strong community partners. Each month our CTE director takes nominations and picks one person within the CTE program to recognize with a T-shirt and social media recognition.
- Crossties Club: This program welcomes and supports new teachers. Giving a warm welcome to your new staff is essential for your building’s culture and teacher retention.
- Staff Shout-Outs: A couple of times a month, I request staff shout-outs from students, staff, and families to be included in my Friday Focus newsletter, where I highlight all the great things we are doing to help students succeed. Our staff has repeatedly commented on how this energizes them.
- Share the Love: We strategically plan to make sure we recognize all our student groups, teams, and clubs on social media—not just sports.
- Food and T-Shirts: You can never go wrong when you look for opportunities to give your staff a free T-shirt and free food. Plan it out and budget for it.
- Free Senior Photos: Families were so appreciative when we found a way to offer free senior photo mini-sessions. This allowed us to ensure equitable participation in this rite of passage in our school.
- Alumni Spotlight: Each week we spotlight an alum through social media. Doing so connects our current students with past ones and furthers that family culture.
- Principal’s Council: Each month, I meet with a diverse group of students at lunch. I share ideas we are considering for student feedback, then listen to their suggestions and work to improve upon them.
- Celebrate Diversity: The Diversity Team strategically plans ways to celebrate diversity in our building. For example, this year the team held fun and educational activities, such as Hispanic dancing lessons and having a Hispanic culture meal for Hispanic Heritage Month.
Beyond engaging in these activities, spread positive culture by connecting with members of your larger community. Plan out times to present to your local community groups such as Rotary, Lions Club, or Kiwanis. Try to present to your Board of Education at least once a year. Invite your community members, parents, and board members to your building to participate in classroom and school activities. Finally, if you can find the time, send a letter to members of the Chamber of Commerce offering to meet with anyone wanting to learn more about the school, as well as offering to provide feedback about your building or district. The more they see a positive culture, the less the loud negative few can shape the narrative in the community.
None of the aforementioned actions will appear authentic or be effective if you are a leader that your staff does not respect. Build a strong culture by modeling family first in your building, being kind and authentic.
Once a month, our administrative team divides our teacher list and each of us drops in on someone’s planning time. We ask them how they are doing and if they need anything. We all want to work for leaders who are willing to show their vulnerabilities, listen, have fun, and truly care about those they serve. We also send individual surveys to our staff to ask how we are doing as leaders. This feedback allows us to strategically plan how to do a better job supporting our staff and build a positive family culture.
If you have not strategically planned and collaborated on building this culture, now is the time.
Caleb Smith is the principal of Newton High School in Newton, KS.