5 Ways to Change the Definition of School Spirit

John Norlin · July 16, 2019

Growing up as a student I thought of school spirit as the number of people who showed up to school sporting events, how many people dressed up in the school colors, and especially how many people participated in spirit weeks. I will never forget the day my paradigm was rocked when I heard that form of school spirit represents only 10% of the average student body. What about the other 90%?

What if your definition of “School Spirit” had to be, “To get all students and staff to want to come to school vs feel like they have to come to school”? What would have to happen to create a place where everyone wants to be there vs feels like they have to be there? Where would a school have to get laser-focused to make that happen? 

Working with educators and students across the country on how to change the definition of school spirit, I have found that people always want to create this kind of school climate and culture, but the problem usually comes in the how to do it.

Below I offer 5 Ways to Change the Definition of School Spirit

#1 - Know the Difference between Culture and Climate

These two words are thrown around a lot in education, but many staff are not clear on what these words mean. In the trainings that we lead at CharacterStrong, we immediately clarify these two terms. 

Simply put Culture is Behavior and Climate is a Feeling. 

We cannot always determine the feeling of a place or moment. Some things happen that are outside of our control and those things can have a positive or negative impact on the overall feeling (climate) of a place. We have far more control over the culture (behavior) of our school. We can teach to specific positive behavior expectations. We can recognize and reward for the behaviors that we want to see. We can get behind the kind of culture we want to see from students and staff each and every day. 

Remember that no matter what your school values are or how beautifully written your school mission statement is, culture is how people actually behave repeatedly and habitually.


#2 - Remember First Impressions Matter

There are many different opportunities that a school has to make positive first impressions. These opportunities come both at the beginning of the year and at the beginning of each day and or class period. 

Beginning of the Year - The way we welcome our newest students by going above and beyond for them matters a great deal. We only have one chance to make this first impression with the newest students in our school. Spending the extra time and energy to let the newest students in your school know they matter and are an important part of your school sets the tone for their entire time they will be with you. Connecting them with older students as mentors, not only supports their transition to help them be more successful, it also creates a culture and climate where they are more likely to sign up to be mentors for the newest students when they are the older students in the school. 

In an article in the Atlantic, Jon Zaff, director of the Center for Promise at Tufts University speaks about the importance of the 9th grade transition year when he says, “More and more of us are realizing that it’s the make or break year for many 14- and 15-year-olds. It’s a time when the cognitive, emotional, and physical are all coming together."  

Beginning of Each Day: One of the highest leverage moves a school can make to change the definition of school spirit is to get intentional with what is happening at the main entrances of the school and classrooms. Intentionally greeting students each day sets the tone for the day and each given class. It provides an opportunity to say, “Today is a new day and we are glad that you are here.” I have seen the overall climate of a school drastically improve by schools getting behind one intentional relational move for the year. That simple, yet not easy move is to greet them at the door with energy and unconditional love. 

#3 - Leverage Your Staff Influence

If culture is behavior, we need to always remind ourselves that does not just mean the student behavior, but just as important, in fact, more important is the adult behavior practices that are happening in a school. If we want to change the definition of school spirit, we have to be relentless with the behaviors that staff are demonstrating each day. 

“It is teachers who have created positive teacher-student relationships that are more likely to have the above average effects on student achievement.” John Hattie (2009)

John Hattie’s book, Visible Learning, A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analysis Relating to Achievement showed us what common sense already knew and that is what is happening on a relational level each day between staff and students matters a lot! One way that we can leverage the huge influence that staff has is to intentionally get behind certain behaviors, to increase the impact size. It is important that these relational practices are low burden and high impact. If something is going to take a lot of preparation from staff to put into action, it will not work. 

At CharacterStrong we have developed a 40 Week Staff CharacterDare which is a weekly set of challenges that are low burden and high impact strategies to more intentionally leveraging the influence staff has in a building. We have seen thousands of educators get behind these CharacterDares to not only be more intentional with how they build and maintain relationships in their school but also to build unity and energy as a team. 

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#4 - Close the Activities Gap

If a school is going to change the definition of school spirit to a place where all students want to be there vs feel like they have to be there, they are going to have to go to work on closing the activities gap. 

What does it take to be involved in your school? How much money does it cost to participate in different extracurricular activities? Does everyone in your school get a spirit shirt, just for being a member of the school? If not, how could you make that happen? Which students are in leadership positions for your school? Is it representative of your student body? Is the only way to be “involved” require you to be able to stay after school and get home afterward? What does it take to be able to run for a position or be involved as a student? Are the requirements to be involved or run for student government equitable or do they favor a certain group of students in your school? 

If schools are going to close the activities gap, they need to seriously do an audit on the current state of their extracurricular programs and activities and what it takes to be involved in their school. 

#5 - Conduct a Climate Mapping Exercise

Every school has natural high points and low points. Understanding these moments and thinking through them before the school year begins matters a great deal in creating an ideal school culture and climate. 

One way a school can intentionally go to work to change the definition of school spirit is to simply map out the year. Bring staff and students together and create a timeline, marking down the natural high points and low points of the year. The key here is that you don’t need to get every moment right or have every moment be a high point to have an amazing year where people want to be there each day. However, we can take certain low points and go to work to make them high points to have more consistency with the number of high points that are happening during the year. Our friend Scott Bachovich is a great resource on this climate mapping strategy and many more ways to intentionally approach the improvement of your school climate. 

Whatever your approach to improving the overall school climate and culture, the key is that intentional planning goes a long way. Too many times schools wait until the year has started or until adversity hits before problem-solving or intentionally getting serious about improving things. Let’s start planning now to create schools everywhere that both students and staff wake up each day and want to be there vs feel like they have to be there. I wonder what would happen to our achievement scores if that happened?


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.