Welcome Back: How to Make Your School a Welcoming Place For All by Andy Thibodeau

A common poster found on entrance walls or on the classic mat at the front door.
“How are you?”
The most common thing we say to people to start a conversation.
“Can I help you?”
A common greeting extended to all of us when we walk into a store.
“Hi or Hey”.
How it all starts verbally when connecting with others.
Where it really begins with connecting with others.

At first it may seem odd to many of us to review the power of these statements and actions, because it comes so naturally to those who are reading this article. However, as the over 2-year experience of the pandemic has shown us, there was a loss of social growth for some of our teens. When in new situations, faced with meeting new people, or when bored, too many are looking down at their phones rather than looking up at a new face with warmth and greeting.

So, as we begin a new year at schools across Canada, an idea for one of your first leadership meetings is take 10 to 15 minutes and review with your leaders the skills and benefits of a warm greeting and the power of “can I help you?”.

As you begin the discussion, feel free to take my opening from my student leadership workshop, “Making Care Contagious.” What makes Walmart different than most stores? The Greeter! A designated person at the entrance to bring greetings and answer questions on the location of products and services. Promote a discussion with your leaders. What can we do at the entrances to the school that promote greeting? What can we say or do? Share ideas.

What are the barriers to greeting others? What stops us? How can we help each other with encouragement to move past possible “negative” reactions to our greetings. For example, the “classic”, saying hi, and the person does not even look up or reply. How do you react to that in a positive way?
Empower your leaders with this tool. If others do not say hi … you reply with … welcome back, make it a great day, see you later … so the silence is still filled with a positive message. And, move on to the next person. That’s it. Challenge them to avoid being sarcastic, or, laughing with a fellow leader about them, or, making eye contact with an “eye roll” with a leader as that quiet person walks by. No jokes. Just encouragement. Others can be shy. They may have had negative experiences recently, including
that very morning. They may have ear buds in and they did not hear you!

A great early activity for your leaders is to have door greeters on the first or second day of school. I have seen it done as a tunnel of enthusiastic leaders in school spirit cheering and welcoming. I have seen it a more subdued way of two leaders per entrance, at each entrance, standing there for 15 to 20 minutes, holding open the doors. Random “door” prizes. Every 10 to 25 students, a random prize is given away. Build excitement and surprise. A shirt. A $5 coffee shop or cafeteria gift card. Maybe everyone gets a sticker, a candy, a temporary tattoo. Maybe a commitment to deliver a high five or a props to all who enter, after asking them of course. “Hey, can you go high for a five? Hey, can I give you props? Welcome!”

Then, after the first two days, let’s carry the “Greeters” tradition to ALL of our activities, and have a rotation of leadership greeters at the entrances to … dances, concerts, meetings, lunchtime activities, assemblies, rallies … at the entrance OR as you walk around the activity.

To complete these actions, an idea I have seen is your leaders asking students as they arrive at school on that first or second day, “Can I take a picture of you (and your friends) for a photo essay of the first days?” With their approval, take the picture.

It’s best with two or more official camera people, (hopefully your yearbook photographers) at different entrances, with your yearbook’s SLR cameras. BUT, I have also seen it where you designate the cell phones of 2 to 4 leaders to be the camera people and they then share their pictures later … It’s in these moments your leaders can really harness the power of the COMPLIMENT … Encourage them to vocalize uplifting statements to everyone they see like … “Wow! Nice smile! Cool shirt. Love those shoes. Beautiful necklace. Love what you have done with your hair. Looking great!” And of course, “what is your name? My name is … welcome back!” Then, by the week’s end, those photos can be a part of …
A video board’s photo stream that is running in common areas of your school. A photo display board on the hallway walls. Your school’s social media feed as a video or a series of collages.

So welcome back! IT will be a great fall of 2023 thanks to you and all you do to make your school a welcoming place for all!

To learn more or book Andy for a presentation, check out his speaking page here.