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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do Students Have a Brand?

By Peter DeWitt — July 20, 2015 4 min read
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We hear a lot about branding these days. Many school leaders are using different social media venues like Twitter, Remind and Facebook to brand their schools. In a time when the rhetoric about schools has not been kind, branding is an optimal way to share positive school messages with the school community. We need the communities to see the great things we are doing!

In their book, The Power of Branding (I’m the series editor), Sinanis and Sanfelippo wrote,

As lead learners, administrators, and educators, it is our responsibility to transform the thick brick barriers surrounding our school buildings into clear, transparent walls of glass! We should want our community to see all the amazing things happening in school, and we should want our children to have a strong connection with the community around them. A positive and productive home/school connection rooted in strong two-way communication is critical to the success of all students and schools."

That is branding.

School leaders create hashtags, usually using the name of their school mascot, and every Tweet and Facebook post includes that hashtag. It helps to build a sense of community online that can be continued and fostered offline. There is no doubt, that if done correctly, branding can help build better communication between stakeholders and help everyone feel as though they are a part of the school community.

With positive branding we can have the goal for all students to feel as if they belong to something powerful. Instead of school being a place they have to go to each day because they are required to, branding inspires students to want to go to school each day because they know there is a place for them.

Can branding be negative?

When doing a Google search on branding, images around selling items for birthdays and other parties come up like this page and this one. Branding to children was not even allowed until the 80’s, which you can read more about here from an interview I did with Nancy Carlsson-Paige. Carlsson-Paige said, There has been a dramatic increase in marketing to kids in the last 15 or 20 years! Billions of dollars are now spent by corporations to market to the special ‘target’ group called children.”

Products are branded to students, but are we responsible for branding our students?

The other day I attended an inspiring EdcampCNY in Liverpool, NY, which is in the central part of the state. In one of the sessions, music teacher Greg McCrea said, “It seems as though students have a brand at a very young age.” McCrea wasn’t being negative or positive. He was stating an opinion, and I agree with him.

Some students are considered “brainy” because they do well in school, “artsy” because they play in the orchestra or act in school plays, and others are branded “jocks” because they play multiple sports. I am not sure that this is all that different from when we were growing up in different decades. We just didn’t use the word “branding” back then.

Perhaps this whole idea of branding is not new for kids. After all, when we were all young we were branded in one way or another. But it seems to be more serious. It seems as though we set students up for failure when we contribute too much to their branding. What happens if the next track star from middle school doesn’t want to run when they get to high school? What if the brainy one doesn’t excel in the next grade like they did in the previous one?

Does that set them up to feel like failures? I don’t want to make a mountain out of a molehill, but I wonder about the following:

Do parents contribute to branding? This does not mean to be negative. Some parents really want to support their children, whether it’s in music or sports. Does that support go too far? Sometimes students feel responsible for continuing in the particular area because they feel a sense of pressure from their parents. Is there a fine line between support and pushing?

What happens when it’s the wrong brand? Everyone was intrigued by Tiger Woods because he was such a prodigy when he was a adolescent golfer. It seemed like everyone wanted their child to be the next Tiger Woods, which isn’t a bad thing. Many kids got into golf, and many young men and women found a sport through watching Tiger that they may never have tried. I just wonder how many adolescents were being made to play golf when they really didn’t want to. Students should have the right to explore different areas to find their own interests.

Students can change their brand - Don’t let others control your brand. No one should tell you what you will do with your future. Find your passion. If that passion has changed from the brand you had from a few years ago, no worries! Reinvent yourself.

In the End

Branding can be a positive way for school leaders to communicate with the school community. It helps open up the school walls and lets parents in on the secret of school. Branding needs to be open and honest, and inspire true dialogue among all stakeholders.

Where it seems to be harmful is when it pigeon holes students into believing they have one area that they should focus on. Too much branding can lead to something negative. It can stifle a child’s desire to branch out and try new things. Our greatest moments shouldn’t be the ones we had in middle and high school, and they certainly shouldn’t revolve around just one area. Our greatest moments should be the ones we have ahead of us that we don’t see coming. If we brand anything, it revolve around preparing us for any situation that pops up in life.

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Creative Commons photo courtesy of Robert Soo.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.