Building a school culture of appreciation

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By Jamil Maroun

In his book, The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch tells the story of taking his 15-person research team to Disney World as a “thank you” for their dedication to his research – research that would ultimately result in him earning tenure in record time. When asked why, Pausch felt like he had no choice. Through their efforts and hard work, he earned “the best job in the world for life.”

As school leaders, it’s important that we remember this incredible lesson. Without our teachers, paraprofessionals, lunch aids, custodians, bus drivers, crossing guards, and other support staff, we would not be successful at “the best job in the world.” 

During my time as principal of Roosevelt School in New Jersey’s Manville School District, our team focused on creating a sense of community and a positive school climate. Here are five guiding practices that drove our team:

  • Use We, not I. As a school leader, it’s easy to get caught up in the “I did… I created… I feel…”  mindset and forget about the “we.” We is the most powerful word a school leader can use. It means that the leader has heard his team’s opinions, values their efforts, and gives credit where credit is due. At Roosevelt, I have not created success on my own; we have created the success.
  • Be there. We recently experienced an issue with a student that had the potential to disrupt the regular dismissal for our students and staff. As I was briefing the teacher who would be dismissing the student, I explained that I would be on hand to assist if needed. After we finalized our plan, she thanked me, to my surprise, explaining that she appreciated my support in addressing the issue together. Being a school leader is demanding, but it is imperative that the leader be there for their team. While the teacher could’ve handled the situation on her own, having support made the situation less stressful.
  • Find the good in everyone. It’s important to find the good in every member of your team. I believe that all employees want to do right by their students and find happiness in their work. Just as employees can positively influence workplace culture, there can also be a negative impact. Some employees may have “battle scars” that influence how they interpret situations, or their behavior. A leader must find ways to see the best in these staff members and build on their strengths. Encourage these employees to grow and help them meet their goals. Remember, their lens is different from yours, and their perspective is also different. Your actions probably won’t make employees forget about their battle scars, but it will help them move on.
  • Find ways to give back time. Because teachers are salaried employees with a heavy workload, they work well beyond the normal school day. It’s not uncommon for schools to create initiatives that increase staff workload without giving them time to do the work or removing responsibilities. School leaders should carefully review planned initiatives and evaluate them against the time needed for implementation. If it bleeds into an employee’s personal time, it is the responsibility of the school leader to provide adequate time during the work day to fulfill the plan. Could your school utilize sub coverage to allocate more prep time for teachers? Can you carve out teacher prep time during school assemblies? A teacher’s time is valuable, so it’s up to you to find creative solutions.
  • Celebrate! We try to frequently celebrate our successes as a school. Every morning, we hold a student-led homeroom assembly that all students and staff attend. We celebrate everything from birthdays to academic and instructional successes, awards, personal successes, graduations, and even career transitions, such as retirements and new opportunities. In addition, we have created a “Staff Member of the Month” program to recognize the outstanding work our teachers are regularly doing. We believe that by celebrating success of all kinds, we will build a common and unified school that promotes the positives in everyone.

As a school leader, you may not be able to take your team to Disney World to thank them for supporting you and putting you in a position to succeed. However, your simple gestures of gratitude can be as meaningful and can change the culture of your school and district


About the author

Jamil Maroun is assistant superintendent at Manville School District in New Jersey and an ASCD Emerging Leader. Follow him on Twitter at @mrjamilmaroun.

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