How do you want any student or staff member to feel when they walk into your school? Do they enter every morning wanting to be there? Is there laughter and genuine enthusiasm in the hallways? Is there collegiality that boosts collaboration and shared responsibility? A positive school culture impacts the attitudes and behaviors of students and staff, as well as the teaching and learning experience. You, as a school leader, have an indispensable role in empowering and creating a culture of excellence that inspires those around you in establishing a positive school culture. 

In his book Culturize: Every Student. Every Day. Whatever It Takes., Jimmy Casas provides action steps for educators to take an honest look at what it means to invest in, influence, and improve overall school culture. He challenges school leaders to lead and inspire one another to bring and give their very best every day, both personally and professionally. His leadership advice has transformed my actions and mindset to being at my best for others, even when I do not feel at my best. 

I believe the school year should be frequently interrupted by fun. Having fun engages your staff and students in positive ways while building morale. But before you jump in with random recognitions and events, consider your school environment and the preferred methods of how your staff and students like to be recognized or what kind of events will empower the playfulness that we all need to combat the stress of our daily grind. Know your staff and students. For instance, a private recognition may be best if your staff member prefers a quiet note. After all, your school culture consists of the individual influences and attitudes within your school and are normally based on the traditions and beliefs of your school community, so find the time to analyze them and plan for your preferred or desired state. Learn the general “feeling” of your school, focus on the positive aspects of your school culture, and take action steps to inspire all.

Building Recognition Programs

To motivate your staff, build in a peer recognition program to shed light on exceptional work that may go unnoticed. Such recognition could be shared individually with your staff or read aloud at a faculty meeting—a great platform for teachers to learn from one another. Honoring individual accomplishments can be done in multiple ways, from simple notes of appreciation to bigger schoolwide events. 

For example, last December we engaged our staff in an “Elf Search and Rescue.” We created a little element of surprise by sending enticing messages out about the upcoming event, which helped build excitement. After school, we hid little elves around the school for staff members to find. Once they “rescued” the elf, they would return it to the office and claim their respective prizes. All prizes were in gift baskets, numbered, and on display, which added a little extra competition for those wanting to win a specific prize. We used “gently used” gifts and other donations from staff and local stores and restaurants to create the baskets. After all the elves were rescued, we shared the names of the winners with all staff. If you have cameras in your building, you can also use some hallway photos to share in the fun of the search. 

Another activity included a free-throw contest using a nerf ball and hoop. The winners earned a free prep period while our building-level administrators covered their classes. 

At department meetings, our staff take five minutes to write postcards to students and staff recognizing the great things they have done over the week, and we mail them out. It is a simple gesture that both staff and students talk about for days if they receive one. Students thank the teachers in person and that just adds to the positive rapport we are focused on building. Other activities could incorporate theme days such as “Make Mondays Matter,” “Tuesday Talks,” or “Fabulous Fridays.” We have learned students and staff enjoy taste testing, so host a chili contest, cookie bake-off, or a soup challenge. When there is food, they will come!

On registration day, we greet our incoming students with music, a photo booth, a commitment to graduate banner, and high-fives from our Wally the Warhawk mascot. Students are photographed signing the banner and posing in the photo booth for our yearbook and for our social media sites. The smiles and fun are priceless! 

There are many ideas and cost-effective ways to recognize and honor the work of your students and staff and far more creative people in your building who can spearhead the fun. Explore having committees that include students, staff, and community members to plan out monthly or bimonthly activities. The impact of creating and modeling a positive school culture can be measured and demonstrated by the relationships and interactions between your students and staff—you’ll notice your students being more engaged with learning, increased regular attendance, higher grades, better social skills, higher self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and improved behavior, reducing your school referrals. 

To be great, you need to inspire others, step out of your comfort zone, and engage yourself in the world’s most important work: recognizing and celebrating the success of your students and staff. Check out NASSP’s Building Ranks Framework to diagnose your strengths as a leader and explore how to build upon them. Jostens offers a Renaissance Education program that is second to none with many helpful resources and shared activities to get you inspired to recognize your students and staff in meaningful ways. 

Debra Paradowski is the associate principal of Arrowhead Union High School in Hartland, WI, and the 2020 NASSP Assistant Principal of the Year.