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The Giraffe Award: How a Small Celebration Can Change Your Team’s Culture

By: Justin Toomer on March 9th, 2020

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The Giraffe Award: How a Small Celebration Can Change Your Team’s Culture

As a first generation college graduate, I recognize daily the impact my investment in a quality academic experience has had on my life. This understanding drove my passion to provide a similar opportunity to as many young people as possible; leading me across the graduation stage, diploma gripped tightly in hand, right back into the classroom. Except this time, it was my classroom. Being on the other side of that teacher table was a role that I did not take lightly, and I engaged in my work each day operating under the belief that any slip ups in classroom management or poorly executed lesson plans would result in the loss of precious moments for my students to learn and grow. I singularly considered my work to be “serious”, and very quickly found this disposition to be exhausting. The vision I had upon entering the role, one that many new educators have, was fading fast, and I was fortunate to be on a team that understood this reality and had a support system in place to address it. 

One afternoon in the late fall of my first year, there was an excited buzz around the upcoming staff meeting. The classroom that typically housed our meetings had been transformed; desks were rearranged, music was playing, and the walls were covered in jungle-themed posters. I wasn’t too sure of what was happening, but after having what felt like a long day, I cast any preconceived notions to the side and joined a few peers in the dancing and snacking that was taking place. After a few minutes of fun, my “serious” side began to return, reminding me of the night of grading and planning I was going to have in front of me if I didn’t get back to work. Just as I prepared to ask a colleague about the purpose of the day’s festivities, the music was cut off and all eyes moved towards the classroom door. Dressed head to toe in giraffe print clothing, in walks our principal, flanked by our student drumline. It was shared that we had not entered a staff meeting, but an awards ceremony, and the afternoon would be spent recognizing those who - in a myriad of ways - “stuck their neck out” and lived out our school’s values. Now the giraffe-related clothing made sense, as well as the staff’s excitement; they were going to get an opportunity to give a Giraffe Award to each new staff member, both recognizing us for our unique contributions and intentionally welcoming us as members of the team. 

Fostering a feeling of celebration helps to meet an individual’s needs around inclusion, innovation, appreciation, and collaboration. The research by Matt Lieberman, author of the book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect, has shown that our brains are designed to be social, and the need for human contact is greater than the need for safety. Those organizations practicing celebrations as part of their regular habits open up their employees to make them feel like part of the organization’s common success, enable them to have the confidence to challenge the status quo, take ambitious initiatives, and share their creative ideas with others. Because I felt like I had not been meeting the lofty goals and expectations I set for my performance, all of those qualities around creativity and innovation waned, and were replaced by feelings of complacency and survival. Being celebrated by my peers, and recognized for accomplishments that I at times didn’t notice were happening, sparked an important shift in my approach. Celebrations literally impact our brains, as levels of “feel good” chemicals are released during that period, creating a safe space that allows for risk-taking, deeper learning, and the development of grit in the face of new challenges. 

When we are given praise publicly, powerful sentiments are unlocked as employees feel they are trusted, supported, and are therefore more motivated to reach individual and shared goals. Learning that my team viewed me as a strong collaborator and an aspirational figure for my students brought me closer to them while also affirming the path I chose to make an impact. After that memorable staff meeting, those who were given the Giraffe Award were then tasked with identifying the next set of colleagues we wanted to recognize and highlight. This created a feeling of connection and generosity amongst our team, as we were supported in seeking out the good things, the small wins, and the big accomplishments that aren’t often noticed or shared outside of an individual teacher’s classroom. I was no longer solely characterizing my success on long-term, individualized measures and realized the true power a small celebration can have on a group.

When did you last celebrate success with your team? When individuals, or your team, achieve something, what do you do? Educators have busy days and it is all too easy to place immediate focus on the next task at hand, like I was training myself to do, and forget to reflect on what has been accomplished. Small celebrations are vital opportunities to inspire a team to achieve greater success and also strengthens the leadership of those willing to engage in the process. At Education Elements, we believe in building strong habits, and have found ways to consistently build celebrations into our team functions. Whether we are giving one another shoutouts in staff gatherings, sharing personalized awards during retreats, or ending each meeting thanking everyone for their contributions; celebrations have been encoded into our processes - and I couldn’t be more “serious” about the positive impact they have had on my career as an educator. 

We know our work can be challenging, and once you develop the habit of building intentional opportunities to celebrate success in your meetings and gatherings, your team will experience the same shifts I did; feeling more aligned to the organization’s goals, an increase in motivation, an intentional focus on the positive attributes your colleagues display, and a deeper sense of trust as relationships are strengthened amongst the group. It might be the Giraffe Award, the Golden Flop Award (celebrating the biggest failure/lesson learned), team shout-outs, or something else - but an investment into recognizing and celebrating your team will bring benefits and values that rival your strongest professional development session. Now go out and get your giraffe costumes!

About Justin Toomer

Justin Toomer is a Senior Design Principal at Education Elements, working with the Design & Implementation team to help districts and their schools around the country improve their student growth and success. A first-generation college graduate, he began his teaching career in Colorado with an intention to increase the opportunities for all students to access a quality and equitable academic experience. He has experienced success working in independent, public, and charter schools; and has taught at the elementary, middle, and high school level. After teaching, Justin took an administrative position as Dean of Students at the Denver School of Science and Technology, where he set and led the school’s vision for its culture, support, and accountability systems. He has provided Personalized Learning consulting services with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, Kansas State Department of Education, Corcoran Unified School District, and Fresno Unified School District.

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