It’s easy to recognize the stars on your staff but to create a culture of gratitude, appreciation and recognition within your school system, it’s essential to focus on more than just those who shine bright. Building an excellent employee recognition program helps improve staff morale and retention, which enhances your recruitment efforts. And the stories you tell—that show your school system’s heart and values—provide authentic, engaging content for your communications channels while bolstering your organization’s reputation.
Creating a Culture of Recognition
Start with a plan. The main goal is to intentionally build and support a culture of appreciation and gratitude that celebrates all of the people in your system. Consistent appreciation can inspire your team, improve staff retention and elevate the reputation of your school and district.
Creating a staff recognition program can be daunting if you don’t have a plan already in place. But whether you’re a small school or a sprawling county office of education, recognition tactics can work for you. The most critical thing is to start now.
“It’s important to recognize some, even if you can’t recognize all,” said Janet Swiecichowski, APR, Vice President at CEL Marketing PR Design. “Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of potential recognitions. Start small. Highlight those you recognize as one example of many within your school.”
Types of Recognition
Recognition is being noticed and valued. Luckily, recognition does not only happen on a stage or with trophies. You may have an employee of the month honored in front of your school board, or staff celebrated in awards ceremonies, but a simple handwritten thank you note from a supervisor can be equally valued. Research from Gallup shows that an accolade from a direct supervisor, or the “bosses’ boss” carries the most meaning. And a spontaneous, unexpected recognition often feels more special than a quarterly or annual award.
START by planning consistent recognitions. Think employee of the month awards or monthly employee spotlights. Create automated emails that wish employees a happy birthday on their birthdate. Honor coaches and teachers when students and teams earn honors, championships, or state or national recognition.
LEVEL UP by developing a habit within your leadership team to do spontaneous recognitions. Consider creating branded notepads just for this purpose (you were caught doing…thank you for…we appreciate you… etc.)
Spread the Love
Every school system is full of unsung heroes. An easy way to begin is listing every department and employee group to ensure you recognize people from every group. Teachers, principals, IT professionals, administrative professionals, paraprofessionals, culinary, bus drivers, social workers, school nurses, and school board members—there’s a national recognition day for each. By making a list of employee groups and preplanning recognition dates, you can ensure you recognize people equitably.
START by making a list of national recognition days, and honor them on their day on social media. (Canva makes it easy with pre-designed templates!)
LEVEL UP by doing a short profile of one or more group members during their recognition day or week.
Honor One Another
Not all recognitions need to be top-down. Creating a culture of recognition means fostering ways for colleagues to recognize one another.
Reading School District developed a “Staff Shout-Out” google form in which staff can drop an anonymous thank you, which are included in their weekly staff emails. In a single school year, Reading internally shares hundreds of shout-outs that help to bolster staff morale and shine a light on even the smallest of tasks that colleagues do to support one another.
Princeton Public Schools enjoys a tight-knit community, and they have fun showcasing district “power couples” on social media every year. The district loves celebrating the many couples working in the school system, and their colleagues and community are excited to honor people they know.
START by developing a way for colleagues to recognize one another. Perhaps create a google form to collect staff shout-outs or submit good news that may otherwise go unshared. Dedicate a bulletin board in the main office where colleagues can leave sticky notes of appreciation for one another.
LEVEL UP by finding ways for your community-at-large to join in the celebration. Whether that’s including celebrations on social media, releasing news stories to honor staff, or spotlighting employees in a community newsletter.
Recognize Those Staying
A common pitfall is to recognize retirees more than those staying. There’s nothing wrong with having a fantastic retiree event to celebrate their many years of service, but be sure that a retiree event isn’t the only recognition some staffers ever receive.
START with rolling out the red carpet for new employees, honoring years of service, and hosting joyful employee events. Align your recognition goals with your strategic plan and honor those empowering or inspiring others.
LEVEL UP by ensuring that every team (if not individual) is celebrated at least once a year. Write a spotlight on any staff members who grow their career within your system (from para to teacher, teacher to admin, etc.). Show behind-the-scenes work—what does it take to be a school custodian? What is your security officer’s favorite part of the day? What meal is your culinary team’s favorite? Who’s really in charge of flying the flag, and how do they know the rules?
For school systems branching out into Instagram Reels or TikTok accounts, consider these not-so-secret job duties as accessible content. What’s better—a Facebook post saying school is closed due to weather or a short clip of the school superintendent outside investigating the snow? Think personalization, humanization, and celebration of all the work that happens behind the scenes.
Showcase Your Values
Thanks for going above and beyond! We appreciate all the late nights and weekends you spent making sure things were ready for the first day!!
Sound familiar? Honoring overwork is common, but it’s an unhealthy practice. Before thanking someone for going above and beyond, consider the values important to your school system. Be sure that what you recognize matches your values rather than aspects of overwork. Think about honoring your staff for the same qualities you would honor in a student. Don’t applaud workloads that cause staff to forgo family time, healthy amounts of sleep or rest time. Instead, honor and recognize traits that are valued by your school system.
If your core values center on relationships, ask the students who the adults are in the school who show they care. If the strategic goals are in literacy, what teachers can you showcase or gift with books? At Thanksgiving, set up a video camera and ask students to give their thanks to a staff member. If your district leads in innovation, showcase innovative lessons; if your focus is on equity and belonging tell the stories of inclusion in action. Or perhaps teamwork and collaboration are core values you want to spotlight; create a collaboration award. Annual Teacher of the Year awards? Are other employee groups recognized with the same fanfare?
No matter what recognition practices you adapt, focus on recognizing people and not just their work. Everyone loves free school swag or a box of breakfast doughnuts, but thanking someone for being who they are and celebrating someone as an individual or team can be more meaningful than any other type of recognition. Every recognition counts. It’s okay to start small and grow your program over time.