School & District Management

How This Principal Uses TikTok and YouTube to Build School Culture

By Denisa R. Superville — December 01, 2022 8 min read
Tight crop of hands typing on a laptop overlaid with a window that includes a video play button and red progress bar.
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As an assistant principal, David Schexnaydre thought a lot about how he’d communicate with students and build a healthy school climate when he finally became a principal.

Principals and teachers, he knew, could do all the right things, by creating a wide array of extra-curricular programs for students, starting a ton of clubs, and crafting a strong mission statement. But many times students and families don’t even know those efforts exist.

So about five years ago, Schexnaydre, the principal of Harry Hurst Middle School in St. Charles Parish in Destrehan, La., started recording short YouTube videos that students watch in homeroom on Monday mornings—a departure from the stodgy newsletter and intercom announcements.

The Monday videos—most are around five minutes long—are light and breezy. They cover what’s coming up that week inside and outside of the school; lessons tied to one of the school’s core values of honesty, unity, respect, self-motivation, and tolerance; the growth mindset mantra of the month; and other things happening in school that Schexnaydre wants to address.

“I thought about reaching the students where they were,” Schexnaydre, the state’s 2023 principal of the year,
said. “If you’re a kid, you probably spend some time on YouTube. You probably spend some time on some type of social media. That was kind of my approach: I wanted to make a video for our kids every week, where I can talk to them about the things that were going on in our school, the ways they can be involved, the things we were doing to help them—just some positive messaging.”

The YouTube videos—they are mostly weekly, unless Schexnaydre’s work schedule gets too hectic—have gained a following in the school, with students now coming up to Schexnaydre in the hallways and lunchroom and suggesting new ideas.

Last December, on students’ recommendation, Schexnaydre conquered another frontier: he took the funny bits from the YouTube videos to TikTok. The resulting TikTok clips have gotten more than 1.7 million views.

A short comedic clip of Schexnaydre, dressed in a green polo shirt andkhakis, showing up at school without his ID to stress why it’s important for students to have their IDs at all times, had 300,000 views. Another of Schexnaydre dancing in the empty school hallway after students left for Christmas break last year notched 1.3 million views.

Using videos to improve school culture

There’s always an overt, though not preachy, lesson in the longer YouTube videos.

A few years ago, Schexnaydre came across a clip of Drew Brees, the former New Orleans Saints quarterback, practicing alone on a football field. Schexnaydre found a way to tie Brees’ commitment to the school’s motivation theme and include it in the Monday video.

“He was going through repetitions and throwing the ball by himself—that’s how motivated he was to ensure that the Saints won that week,” he said.

“Whatever the teachers are doing in the classroom, I want the kids to hear some of the same things from me,” Schexnaydre added.

David Schexnaydre, Principal, Harry Hurst Middle School, Destrehan, La.

Sometimes Schexnaydre uses himself as part of the lesson to emphasize how even successful people struggled at times.

He shared his 8th grade report card, from 1996 to 1997, along with the comments from his teachers, in the Nov. 14 episode.

“My grades were not good,” he warned students, before the card appeared on the screen, with handwritten comments.

“David needs to take his work more seriously!” “Needs more self-control with his talking!” “Less play, more work!”

But there was a bigger lesson in revealing his old report card.

“Why am I showing you this?” he asked. “I want you to know that I struggled, maybe just like some of you are. These comments from my teachers show you that I struggled with grades and behavior. But even though my teachers corrected me and held me accountable, they cared about me, and they were pushing me to do better. Keep that in mind as we move forward in the school year, and remember that we care about you and we want the best for you even if you aren’t at your best right now.”

In another episode, students got to see the multiple flubs and behind-the-scenes outtakes from making the Monday morning video—proving that the principal doesn’t always get it right initially.

The videos are also a great way to recognize students publicly for their accomplishments, he said. The student council got a recent high-five for collecting cleaning supplies for families in Florida who were affected by Hurricane Ian.

“Those who are participating in those [events] get excited when they get talked about on the videos,” he said. “It lets their peers know what’s going on. We have a great school student body that comes out and supports them. … We kind of hype them up through the YouTube videos.”

The episodes have helped to boost school pride, Schexnaydre said, with even students from neighboring schools chiming in in the comments section on TikTok.

Schexnaydre is convinced that the videos play a role in his students’ improved perception of their school and a drop in discipline referrals. It’s also helped with buy-in for the school’s focus on mindfulness.

Reinforcing the message by visiting classrooms

While he keeps the videos light, Schexnaydre finds ways to introduce deeper topics. If there’s a serious issue at school, Schexnaydre follows up a brief video mention with class visits and in-person conversations off-camera.

A few years ago, the school had an issue with roughhousing.Schexnaydre said he first mentioned the issue humorously on video, interspersing a clip of the singer Bruno Mars repeating the word “no” to a series of questions, such aswhether it’s OK to ever put one’s hands on another person.

But Schexnaydre later visited classrooms to underscore the gravity of the problem and the consequences.

“I met with classes individually and reviewed violence prevention policies, reviewed the resources in place for them if they do have a conflict with someone on campus, reviewed what the actual consequences are,” Schexnaydre said. “I brought awareness to it in the video, and let them know that was coming, it’s something I was seeing ... But then I did go meet with groups, individually, to let them know, ‘Hey, you all, I know I talked about this on the video this week, but this is important, here is what you need to know, and you need to hear it from me.’”

The videos aren’t a substitute for doing the hard work of collaborating with teachers and students to nurture positive relationships and school climate. But they can help reinforce those efforts, he said.

At least one episode started with a mindful minute and breathing exercises, which students practice at the start of all periods. Each video includes a reference to the school’s values and ends with the tag line, “Better Than Yesterday,” which Schexnaydre has engraved on a wristband and regularly references.

“I like to think of the videos sometimes as the icing on the cake,” Schexnaydre said. “We have done the right things as far as the things that matter. We focus on equity, we focus on wellness, we listen to our students, we’re student-centered—all of those things take really hard work. But what we’ve been able to do with the YouTube videos is kind of put that sweet layer on top of it, and everybody knows about these things.”

The videos are another entry point to connect with the school’s 750 students and their families.

“You want kids seeing this and engaging with you about this,” he said. “We have 750 kids on campus, and I try my best to know every single one of them—their face, their name, stuff about them. This is helping because you have kids that seek you out. They come talk to you about this video, ‘Hey, I saw you talk about this. It made me think about this.’“

Those unexpected moments allow Schexnaydre to learn more about students’ experiences in school.

“Kids will come up to me in the cafeteria, and go, ‘I loved your video this week. I’ll say ‘Thanks. How are your classes going?’ ” Schexnaydre said. “They go ‘OK, I am having some trouble in math.’ And I’ll say, ‘What’s going on in math?’ It’s created a whole pipeline for me being able to tap into the student body and for them to be comfortable with me.”

An easy lift for principals

The videos don’t take a lot of time or money to produce. Schexnaydre does his part, including the scriptwriting and filming, in the after-hours. It takes about 15-30 minutes to write the script and another 15 minutes or so to discuss the episode’s concept with Larry Spencer, the school’s tech paraprofessional who records and edits the videos. Recording time varies depending on the number of takes. They’re edited over the weekend and sent to teachers on Sunday.

“They can really be as much or as little work as you want,” Schexnaydre said. “If you want to have a very basic message that’s consistent with kids each week, and you just want to talk to your kids and faculty each week, it would take you less than a half an hour.”

For principals who may be wary l about branching out, Schexnaydre, 39, said he wasn’t on YouTube or TikTok when he first got the idea. It was also a lot of trial and error, and some of the earlier videos makes him cringe, he said. But he and Spencer learned and improved along the way.

“I am sure there are some people who look at the videos and go, ‘This dude is out of his mind,’” Schexnaydre said. “When I first started it, I think everybody thought I was crazy. Some of the kids probably initially were like, this is corny or lame.” But he focused on the positive and what he wanted to accomplish.

“Without a doubt it’s extra work, and you’re opening up yourself to criticism—but that’s OK,” he said.

Now, when Schexnaydre misses a Monday morning video, students are among the first to let him know.

“Kids would come up to me and say, ‘Dude that’s my favorite thing about Monday. C’mon,’ ” he said. “If I can have middle school kids excited about coming to school on a Monday morning, how do you argue with that?”

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