|By Zoe Plotnick, School Improvement Representative, English Learner Supporter
What makes your school’s culture distinctive? How do members of your school’s community express these distinctive values and traits?
If you stopped to reflect on these questions, there is a good chance that your thoughts turned towards your school’s core traditions, many of which are celebrations of one kind or another. This month students and staff might be decorating cookies, playing games, enjoying classroom parties, or singing songs to kick off the holiday break. Whatever the case may be, these traditions are occasions for the community to come together and celebrate the values – and people – that define your school’s culture.
Celebrations may focus on academic achievement, principled citizenship, or simply gathering as one to reaffirm the meaning of community, but all are vibrant expressions of what it means to belong to your school. While formal celebrations are exciting, smaller ones can be equally powerful. Just because celebrations may be informal or even impromptu, however, does not mean that we cannot be intentional about making them happen.
Here are ways that schools can institutionalize informal celebrations:
Good News in school: Setting aside five minutes at the beginning of a class to invite students to share good news is not just an effective way to set a positive tone – it is also a proactive classroom management strategy. Students often need an outlet to share their excitement before they can fully concentrate on an academic task.
Good News at home: Incentivize positive parent phone calls, which are incredibly powerful but rarely done. While working with multilingual students, I have often heard the same sentiment from interpreters: “I’ve probably done hundreds of these calls for schools, but this is the first one where the teacher wanted to give good news.” Fortunately, you will not need to offer the incentive for long. Teachers will discover that these calls feel wonderful, and that their impact on student behaviors is even more addictive.
Goody Jar: Keep a jar in the front office filled with a wide variety of little prizes: squishy stress balls, coupons for popular local businesses, tickets to school events or games, snacks, and coupons for special privileges like dress-down days or parking passes can all be enticing goodies. Let staff know that they can award goodies however they see fit, but the goody jar must be empty by the end of the week. If lunchtime rolls around on Wednesday and the jar is still mostly full, send a reminder to all staff.
Student ownership of classroom “jobs”: Rather than rotating classroom jobs weekly, teachers can create professional-sounding job titles and have students complete an application process. Older students might submit a resume and undergo an interview. Individuals or teams of students remain in their job title for the whole quarter or semester. Job titles can relate to students’ personal and career interests: for instance, an Interior Designer can maintain a bulletin board displaying student work and select aesthetic elements reflecting the learning community that works in that space.
Friendly competitions: House systems are an increasingly popular approach to culture-building and social-emotional learning among students, but such a system can also be impactful with staff. Teachers can earn points for their house by demonstrating outstanding professional and relational behaviors.
Recognition through shared leadership: Observing expert teachers is a common mentorship practice, but observations are at their most powerful when both novice and expert know what, specifically, should be observed. Consider inviting teachers who are accomplished in certain skills – relationship building, classroom management, using small groups effectively, leading creative and engaging activities – to become experts. Experts are added to a building directory that is organized by skill. Novice teachers can then be matched with experts to observe based on their own improvement goals.
Mobile awards: Choose one or more qualities or practices that you would like to prioritize among staff: creativity, positive relationships, supporting colleagues, leadership, and so on. The school leader gives the first set of awards during a staff meeting, informing staff that they can keep and display their award for two weeks. Then awarded teachers will pass on their award to a colleague at staff meetings every two weeks. As teachers spend two weeks trying to catch colleagues being awesome, a culture of mutual trust and authentic appreciation will take root.
Bennet, D. (2023, June 9). 6 steps to launch your own house system. LiveSchool. https://www.whyliveschool.com/blog/launch-your-own-house-system
Muhammad, A. (2017). Transforming school culture: How to overcome staff division. Solution Tree Press.
Lieberman, A., Hanson, S., & Gless, J. (2012). Mentoring teachers. Jossey-Bass.