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Principals Strive to Boost School Spirit

Every school experiences its share of challenges, but an invisible "we're-all-in-this-together" spirit can go a long way toward carrying a school community through the highs and lows of a year. Included: Principals share their favorite spirit-building activities.

Have you challenged your staff to a bubble-gum-blowing contest lately?

Or a Worst Prom Picture Contest?

Has your PTO sponsored a school-wide door decorating contest?

Have your teachers entertained kids with a game of Condiment Twister?

In Condiment Twister, the yellow spots on the Twister game sheet are covered in mustard, the red spots in ketchup, the blue spots in mayo and -- much to the students' delight -- teachers are the players. (This activity makes a great reward when students reach a hard-to-achieve goal!)

Each year, school leaders (and their co-conspirators) plan all sorts of activities with the sole aim of building school spirit. Activities that bring together parents, teachers, and kids -- as individual, groups, or all together -- can go a long way toward building a climate of fun.

So what fun -- or messy -- activities have you done lately to build spirit in your school? That's the question we posed this month to our Principal Files team.


When it comes to school spirit, every school has its highs and lows. Sometimes the events that influence morale are internal, and other times they come from outside. Wherever those stressors are coming from, when there is a dip in morale at your school, it could be time for a scavenger hunt.

Principal Joan Pinkerton felt that her staff at Kent (New York) Primary School could use a boost, so she planned a scavenger hunt that would get folks working together and laughing.

When teachers showed up for a recent staff meeting, she handed each one a card that had printed on it the name of a familiar song. At her cue, she asked everyone to take a look at the name of the tune on their card and begin humming it. Their task was to find the four others who were humming the same ditty. Within a few minutes the staff members humming "Mary Had a Little Lamb" had gathered, and so had those humming "Old McDonald Had a Farm." Soon, those humming "The ABC Song," "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and other old favorites were teamed up too.

Now that Pinkerton had her groups -- purposely pre-arranged to bring together staff members who might not otherwise team up -- she was set to share her planned scavenger hunt. She had already had a bit of fun preparing a list of ten riddles for the teams to solve. Now she was set to share the riddles, which poked fun at things familiar to all staff members in the room. Each riddle gave clues to an object that teams had to gather.

Math Connects is full of joy,
It even comes with a little toy.
Matthew Cando is his true name:
This robot helps with their math game.

Any teacher who knows MacMillan/McGraw-Hill's Math Connects program knows that Matthew Cando is the program's mascot. Teachers use the little robot puppet to help students give voice to mathematical concepts. And so the rhyming riddle clue made it clear to teachers that one of the objects they needed to hunt down was a Matthew Cando puppet.

Spirit is our school mascot,
He soars above in flight,
Bring us an eagle item,
There are surely some in sight.

An eagle named Spirit is the school mascot at Kent Primary, so from this clue teachers knew they had to gather an object with an eagle on it.

We each received this item,
I am sure you will recall,
It was in your RTI kit,
Bring us the sque-e-e-ezy ball.

Each team of staff members had to work together to solve the riddles and gather the items.

The humming alone started people laughing, said Pinkerton, but then teachers were running all around the building bursting into offices and classrooms to borrow stuff.

Pinkerton described the scene:

We were running some after-school classes at that time, so students were really curious about all the teachers running down hallways and barging into classrooms. "Why are they running? We're not allowed to run in the building," the kids were saying.

Teachers were creative: one teacher brought in a flagpole, which had an eagle on top of it.

Others were a bit devious: one teacher gathered as many of the palm pilots as she could so others had to search harder to come up with that response to one of the riddles.

Of course, the first team back to the meeting room with all ten objects was the winner. Their winning prize was a bottle of wine for each member of the team -- so they could continue the good spirit at home, explained Pinkerton.

But the real winner of the scavenger hunt at Kent Primary was school spirit.

The hilarity of the whole thing made people smile, Pinkerton added. "It reminded us that we are all in this together."


Young students created motivational
posters for test-takers.

You wouldn't think that test-taking and building camaraderie could be synonymous, but many principals find motivating kids to do well on mastery tests to be an excellent way to build "we're all in this together" school spirit.

"The week before state testing we have a Spirit Week," said Jofee' Tremain, assistant principal at Lansing (Kansas) Elementary School. "We ended our Spirit Week with a school assembly for students in our testing grades, grades 3 to 5. We invited a group of students from the neighboring district to come in and put on a great show. Their choir entertained us, and so did their drill team."

Spirit Week provided opportunities for all grades to get involved, not just the testing grades, added Tremain. "Our K through 2 students made signs and posters that encouraged the older kids to do their best on the tests," said Tremain. Signs that said "Do Great on the Test!" and "Do Your Best!" were plastered on lockers up and down school hallways.

One of our third-grade teachers even asked her students parents to create motivational posters as a surprise, added Tremain. Don't you love the bridge between school and home that she created? What a simple way to involve all stakeholders in testing!

The week following Test Week provided another opportunity to build spirit. We arranged for our PTA to serve breakfast to our grade-level teachers as a way to thank them for all their hard work in preparing students, Tremain explained. Students gave their teachers a round of applause as they re-entered their classrooms with their hot breakfasts.

At Clay Hill Elementary School, Floridas state tests, the FCATS, provide plenty of opportunities for building spirit, according to Principal Larry Davis.

"We used Sharp Minds, Sharp Pencils as our school wide FCAT theme," he explained. Staff members were given shirts with the theme on them and students had pencils with the slogan printed on them. Excellent spirit was evident as everyone was encouraged to do their best.

Grade-level teachers who were not testing were sympathetic to those who were, so they got involved by preparing breakfast for the FCAT teachers, Davis added.

The most fun of all, though, is the reward students earn for doing well on their tests. Students have a say in the reward they would like if they earn an A, and this year they have chosen to have their assistant principal (a woman) dress up like a punk rocker and for Davis to dress up like a girl cheerleader!


At Cumberland County Elementary School in Burkesville, Kentucky, Principal Rodney Schwartz and his staff do many things to get students excited about the upcoming state tests.

"One of the events we planned was a students vs, staff stickball game in our gym," Schwartz told Education World. The oldest students -- our fifth graders -- were teamed against staff members who were willing to participate. Of course there was a lot of trash-talking -- all in fun -- leading up to the game. Staff members dressed the part, wearing jerseys, caps, and even eye black. We even had a staff umpire, announcer, and a cheerleader.

School-Wide Themes
Build Spirit

One of the best ways to build a shared sense of spirit is to use a yearlong school-wide theme. Themes are an easy tool to use to unify a school, stimulate students, and positively motivate students and staff, says Larry Davis, principal at Clay Hill Elementary School in Jacksonville, Florida.

At Clay Hill, the entire staff votes on the year-long theme. That way, they own the theme, says Davis. This years theme at the school is Cruising for Success.

Each month we give out a Cruising Award to a grade level and an individual staff member. The award recognizes their positive contributions to our school, Davis explained. Awards include passports for time off, free books, free meals, and a variety of other things. Plus, they get their pictures on our Cruising for Success wall.

Themes like this years unite us and call us to action. And each day we work the cruising theme into our morning announcements Today, when you are cruising into the cafeteria, your menu will include and staff members have cruising shirts that they wear each Friday to help students see and feel the unity and the spirit.

For more about school-wide themes, see the Education Worlds special School Climate theme page.

"The entire school was there to watch, and it was a blast!"

At thousands of other schools, staff use the Accelerated Reader program as a way to build students' reading skills. Some of those schools, like Parker School, a K-3 school in Middlesex, New Jersey, use the program to create competitions that encourage reading and promote comprehension.

"For the past three years, I have challenged the second and third graders in our school to pass AR tests by setting a school-wide goal," says Maureen Hughes, the school's principal. This year I challenged students to pass 2010 tests by the start of the new year in January. If they met the goal, students would be rewarded with a DJ party outdoors in late May or June.

Students have always met the midway goal, Hughes added, so then she challenges them to double that number by the end of the year.

We announce the totals each week with much fanfare at our Student of the Week assemblies, Hughes explained.

Each year Hughes has been running the competition, students have surpassed all goals. This year's June challenge is 4020, and students have already exceeded that number. To this date, they have passed more than 5,800 tests.

First graders and even kindergarteners join the competition when they are ready, and they too participate in the fun, explained Hughes. "We have a wonderful DJ who plays games with the students and conducts a very organized, exciting session. He does contests with the teachers and students, and we spend a great deal of the session laughing at the antics."

This has become a wonderful annual event.


Some schools have discovered that raising money and raising school spirit go hand in hand. Earlier this year, students at S&S Middle School in Sadler, Texas, learned about that connection when they planned a fundraiser for a local charity.

Students paid money to purchase water balloons, explained the school's principal, Lee Yeager. "Then they got to throw the water balloons at the teachers and me."

Yeager and staff members lined up outside. Kids took their positions behind a line and took aim.

The staff dressed up in silly outfits with swim masks, umbrellas, snorkel tubes, and the like, said Yeager. "This turned out to be a really fun event. Both the kids and staff had a great time. And they raised money for a good cause."

Many other schools take advantage of offers from local restaurants and, as a result, end up raising money for school programs and materials. The PTA and Student Council at Weatherly Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, sponsor a couple of those events each month. Once a month they team up with their local Chick-fil-A franchise, and another night they team up with a different local restaurant. Parents or Student Council members serve as hosts for these evenings.

"The Weatherly School Spirit Nights help us economically," said Principal Teri Stokes. "We get a small percent of the proceeds from the night, but it can add up. We just received a check from Chick-fil-A for more than $600!"


Some other efforts to raise school spirit might not sound like much on the surface, but they can be very meaningful to our students, added Stokes. For example, each Friday is School Spirit Day, and the students and staff are encouraged to wear a Weatherly Shirt or school colors.

Another example, Stokes added, is an idea dreamed up by one of our instructional assistants: the Weatherly Friday Dance.

Start the Year
With Spirit

The parents, staff, and Student Council at Weatherly Heights Elementary School plan many events each year to boost school spirit. But the biggest spirit event of the year is the Back-to-School Event, according to Principal Teri Stokes.

Parents, children, grandparents, and even neighbors come and bring lawn chairs, pack a picnic dinner, and dance on the playground blacktop to a live jazz band, Microwave Dave and the Nukes. We introduce the staff and just have a fun school-spirit evening.

On Fridays, he leads a dance contest for our early arrivals, the kids who show up at school between 7:15 and the 7:45 bell. The kids act as the contest judges. They select a few winners each week to be the Weatherly Friday Dance winners for that week.

Only kids who have had good behavior can participate, added Stokes. "It's one of those small things that is fun, helps improve the school climate, and makes a difference in kids' lives," she added.

In 24 years as a middle or high school principal, Frank Hagen had the opportunity to participate in countless activities that helped build a climate of fun and school spirit. He has kissed a pig, a chicken, and a cow. He's been in dunking booths on more than a few occasions. He has participated in faculty talent shows, egg tosses, three-legged races, and a 3-point shooting competition against a professional basketball player. (Hagen won!). He has even been turned into an ice cream sundae.

But the one spirit-building activity he is most proud of was an after-prom party that turned into a school tradition.

Back in 1990, when Hagen was principal at a high school in Delaware, he was approached by the president of the PTO. She wanted the school to host an after-prom party from 12:00 a.m. to 5:00 a.m. so students would have a safe place to go after the prom.

We had never hosted that type of event, but I agreed to support it, Hagen told Education World. As an enticement, the parent organizer advertised that one attending student would have the honor of hitting the principal in the face with a cherry pie.

Hagen isn't sure if that was a determining factor in any student deciding to join in the fun, but the organizers hoped to attract 200 students, and close to 500 signed up.

"After being hit with the cherry pie about midway through the after-prom party, I washed my face and changed clothes," Hagen shared. When I returned to the activities, I turned to congratulate the PTO president and was greeted with a Boston Creme Pie in my face -- to the cheers of all the students, faculty, and parent volunteers, of course!

Twenty years later, that after-prom event is still held each year. And the tradition of a student hitting the principal with a pie continues, too.

"Even now I run into the PTO president from time to time," added Hagen, "and she always checks first to make sure that I am not carrying a pie!"


Principal Contributors to This Article

The following members of Education Worlds Principal Files team shared their thoughts about building school spirit.
  • Larry Davis, principal, Clay Hill Elementary School, Jacksonville, Florida
  • Frank J. Hagen, principal (retired), Saint Michaels Middle/High School, St. Michaels, Maryland
  • Maureen Hughes, principal, Parker School, Middlesex, New Jersey (Grades K-3)
  • Joan Pinkerton, principal, Kent Primary School, Carmel, New York
  • Rodney Schwartz, principal, Cumberland County Elementary School, Burkesville, Kentucky
  • Teri Stokes, principal, Weatherly Heights Elementary, Huntsville, Alabama
  • Ringnolda Jofee Tremain, assistant principal, Lansing (Kansas) Elementary School
  • Dr. Lee Yeager, principal, S & S Middle School, Sadler, Texas

To explore other practical articles from the Principal Files series, go to our Principal Files Archive.
Click here to learn how you might contribute to a future "Principal Files" article.



Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
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