When I took over as principal of Powell High School in the suburban Knoxville community of Powell, TN, in 2015, I walked back into a building that, for the most part, had not changed since I graduated in 1992. Aesthetically, the building looked and smelled the same; yes, my 11th-grade locker was still in the same place with the same locker combination, and there were seven faculty members who had me in class. As I continued to transition into my new role and talked to our students, one thing became clear, and that was that Powell High School was not a fun place anymore.
When I asked about many of the Powell High School traditions and experiences that I experienced as a student, I was shocked to find out that they did not exist anymore. When I dug into my school attendance data, I noticed a trend of checking in late, checking out early, or not even coming because, as the students stated, “there was nothing going on, so it was okay to miss a class here and there.” I immediately knew that for Powell High School to be the best high school it could be, we had to create experiences—experiences that channeled student passions, increased student expectations, and promoted learning. We set out to create an environment that students wanted to be a part of, as opposed to a situation that students had to be a part of.
The approach we took was the following: How can we cultivate a fear of missing out—FOMO—in the experiences at Powell High School make students want to be here every day and actively participate in everything that we have to offer? Our theory was that the more experiences we could create, the more students we could get involved in creating a positive and caring environment that enabled them to be successful each day.
We hope that our teachers are creating amazing FOMO experiences in their classroom, but I want to share some things that we did at the school level.
Flash Attendance Incentives
Once or twice a month, on random days during random class blocks, we will run to a favorite student restaurant and pick up some of their favorite food. At the beginning of a particular instructional block, we will walk the halls going from classroom to classroom, and the first classroom we find with perfect attendance and no tardies, including the teacher, gets the bags of hamburgers, boxes of doughnuts, or cartons of pizza. You should see the students’ faces when they get this surprise! We found that most business partnerships will help with food donations knowing they are rewarding students for being in class and ready to go when the bell rings.
Friday Morning Front Lobby Pep Rallies
Every football Friday, we have a pep rally that starts on our front porch and works its way all the way into our front lobby. In the morning on any given Friday, you will have heard our school fight song, “Rocky Top,” at least ten times. The pep rally starts outside on the front porch with our band, cheerleaders, dance team, and football team. As the buses pull up, students are welcomed by all and immediately become participants in the pep rally. Once all the buses arrive, we march to the front doors of the school and continue to our main lobby, where the fun continues. We end each rally at 8:20 a.m. so that students can be in class on time by 8:30 a.m. I am proud to say that the day with the least student absences and student absences are Pep Rally Fridays because no one wants to miss what is now a Powell High School tradition.
One Simple Statement
We tell our students every day that we love them. Not a day goes by that a student at Powell High School does not hear that someone loves them. The closing line of our morning announcements, in-school PA announcements, or school messenger items sent after hours is, “And remember, we love you.”
I always stand in amazement at the power of this simple statement. I have had countless students come to me and say that the reason they don’t want to miss a school day is that they have no one else in their life to say, “I love you.” We have spent a significant amount of time not just saying, “we love you,” but putting those words into action. We have a faculty and staff that genuinely loves and cares for its kids. Because of this love and encouragement, our student expectations have increased as well as our student performance.
Where to Begin
The examples mentioned above are just several ideas that you can use to create FOMO experiences at your school. You can create whatever is best for your school. If you are stuck and need an excellent brainstorming question, ask yourself this: Why do students never want to miss a youth group session at church or a student get-together on weekends? The answer is that those events allow students to explore their passions while cultivating positive relationships and having a ton of fun in the process. With a little work and creativity, high schools can do the same thing each day.
Chad Smith is principal of Powell High School in Powell, TN, and the 2019 Tennessee Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter (@ThePowellPrin).