Branding Is An Inside Job Branding Is An Inside Job

Branding Is An Inside Job

by Dr. Joe Sanfelippo
Dr. Joe Sanfelippo Dr. Joe Sanfelippo Superintendent, Fall Creek School District
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There’s a common misconception I run into: through no fault of their own, people tend to assume they know how schools operate.

Most went to school at some point and when they reflect on the experience, they tend to remember portions of events but not the entire thing. They also may not have had the best experience in school and that story continues to be told even though it is not the story of what is happening in your school today. 

When people don’t know what you do, they make up what you do. When they make up what you do it is largely based in their experience from 25 years ago. The things happening in schools are amazing! But when the narrative of 25 years ago becomes the current status, we have a huge hill to climb, and that is not fair to the people doing unbelievable things in your building. Storytellers rule the world… and it’s time to make sure everyone hears ours.

Why stories matter

Great things happen in school all the time. There is simply no doubt in my mind about that. The idea that we have places that give people a place to be heard, a place to learn, and a place to grow in and of itself is amazing. Stories of students learning to read their first words, or helping with a community project, and helping a classmate who has been bullied fly through the social media stratosphere. That is fantastic, but it is also a small portion of the incredible things that happen on a daily basis. 

Most of the great things that happen in schools take place behind closed doors with no cameras and no social media. They happen because people are invested in their great work. They happen because people care about each other. They happen because people are trying to help other people become better people, but they often happen in isolation. People won’t change the way they talk about school until we change the way we talk about school. Think about how many times you’ve heard people describe what they do paired with the word “just.” 

Oh, I’m just an administrative assistant. 
I’m only a second grader.
I’m just an elementary principal.

Using the words “just” and “only” devalues our work and gives the person we are talking to license to do the same. You’re never “just” anything, ever.

We have to do a better job, as a profession, of helping those moments become noticed. Not necessarily on a social media thread, but in the hallways, classrooms, and teachers lounges of our building. 

If we RECOGNIZE the work of our colleagues, ACKNOWLEDGE to them that the work is great, and EXTEND the conversation about the great work to someone who wasn’t there, we help provide value to the work, and we want to do it more.

Stories are why we use social media, for the emotional connections we can achieve with individuals on a grand scale. But it’s not about the tools you use, it’s about the stories you tell.

Get everyone involved

As a leader, the energy put into just about anything is going to rub off on your team. Once you’ve gotten started with branding, transferring that excitement to your team is key. Why? Their perspectives enrich the story you’re telling with your brand.

Perspective matters. Everyone will have a unique perspective in your district, from staff in the kitchen to classrooms to students getting on the bus. Their stories matter, especially when it comes to building a strong brand. However, storytelling is somewhat of an art, and people may need some pointers as they start sharing their stories. They may have questions like these:

Q: “What’s your vision?”
A: My vision is simply to empower you to share your vision with the world. My one hope is that when you’re sharing your perspective, you feel the way I feel when I talk about your accomplishments: proud, excited, and in some cases, deeply moved.

Q: “Is that Tweet-worthy?”
A: Yes. Is what you’re doing something people want to see? Yes! If it’s connected with people, it’s a good idea. You just need to tell the story. Instead of saying, “This was awesome!” explain WHY it was awesome. Extend that conversation (with relevant background) for someone who wasn’t there.

Q: “What’s our strategy?”
A: Use your best cultural knowledge. Post right after (or during!) your activity. Post on the weekend when you’re bored (someone else might be, too!). Post during football game commercials. These are your stories and your perspectives, and you can share on your own timeline.


Inevitably this question comes up: What if people abuse the power of storytelling? This might come up, it’s true. One of the best ways to handle this is on the individual level. Pinpoint the account which is sharing the questionable content. Look into the first five or so followers of the account—odds are, they’re involved somehow. Address these folks and remind them what’s at stake for everyone else in the school when they share stories, while reminding them what you truly like about their other posts (if applicable). 

Branding starts with YOU: Your coaching and empowerment makes all the difference.

About the author: Dr. Joe Sanfelippo is the superintendent at Fall Creek School District in Wisconsin, the author of several books, a nationally acclaimed speaker, and was recently named Superintendent of the Year by Education Dive.

Follow-up resource: 10 examples of great branding

Check out these districts and learn about the awesome brands they’ve created—including the fantastic work happening in Fall Creek, Wisconsin. #gocrickets


Dr. Joe Sanfelippo Dr. Joe Sanfelippo Superintendent, Fall Creek School District
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