Brag tags

Ever look at a member of our military all dressed up in his or her dress uniform and wonder what all those medals are for? What did they do to earn them? Each medal represents an accomplishment, yet few of us can ascertain the full story behind any of them by simply looking at them.


Ever look at the back of a football helmet worn by one of your favorite college athletes? Often it is adorned with stickers, each representing an accomplishment during the season, yet those of us not privy to the lockerroom conversations are often left wondering what was done to them.

helmet sticks


What our military and what a lot of college coaches understand, is that success breeds success. Peer pressure is not always negative but can be used for the greater good.

I am not a proponent of extrinsic motivation. I believe that we have to create a generation of altruistic individuals who believe in supporting and growing each other simply for the inherent good in it, but, I also know that a times, a little incentive mixed with a little mystery, might just be the thing that jumpstarts someone into moving in the right direction.

A few years ago I was the principal of a school in the panhandle of Florida. It was a school with a population of students that historically struggled to meet both academic and behavioral expectations. There was a spirit of defeat coupled with a sense of complacency. More times than I care to admit, I heard students admit that they didn’t see a future that carried with much promise or hope. they didn’t see a way to change their life’s narrative. Thank God, I had the opportunity to work with some amazing teachers who did everything they could to change that.

In a few classrooms, teachers began using Brag Tags to incentivize a change in behavior among their students. Students who exceeded expectations, students who met personal goals, students who set a positive example, were rewarded with a lanyard to wear that displayed a value such as “grit”, “perseverance”, or “kindness”, describing the characteristic that was put on display. In order to encourage students, teachers asked students to wear their Brag Tag all day long. Focusing on the positive attributes of students encouraged teachers to be on the lookout for others who displayed similar characteristics and actually made doing the right thing the cool thing.

As the principal of the school and seeing the great results teachers were having with this concept in their classrooms I decided to implement a similar strategy with my staff.

Working in a school that had a history of underperformance, each year there was pressure for many to begin “teaching to the test.” Teachers often felt that if they could just give their students more scripted practice, more worksheets, and more explicit instruction, eventually it would lead to greater results on the end of the year summative assessments. As history showed, however, that was never the case. To help incentivize a change in practice, I decided to begin passing out Brag Tags to teachers as well.

The Brag Tags I used were not homemade but instead looked just like the image below. My staff had heard me preach and shout from the rooftops the ideas of Dave Burgess, Quinn Rollins, Michael Matera and so many others who encourage us to Teach Like Pirates. I tried to encourage my staff to throw caution to the wind, to see treasures, and to maximize engagement, yet too often, the fear of “nothing will work”, “it won’t make a difference”, ‘it’s not worth the effort” we just too entrenched to be swayed by my words.


Brag Tags, however, made all the difference.

In my school, I eliminated monthly staff meetings. Instead, we came together each morning…Yup…every.single.morning, for ten minutes. You can read more about this in my post: Huddle Up.

The ten minutes of our Morning Huddle was split into four distinct sections. As a group, we spent the first two minutes celebrating the success of our peers. We demanded risk-taking and had high expectations for each staff member to go big. The first two minutes of each meeting was a celebration of risks.

The prior summer, when scrolling through items on the Oriental Trade Company website, just looking for small trinkets and prizes, I stumbled upon the items we now refer to as Brag Tags. In essence, these are dog tags with a variety of pirate symbols emblazoned onto each tag. I purchased 200 of them thinking my staff would be able to honor each other at morning meetings by bestowing tags to each other as they recognized risk-taking and tried to honor it. 

What happened far surpassed my expectations. Staff honored each other and, as a result, inspired each other. Much like innovation occurring in the 1990s in Silicon Valley where tech moguls worked to enhance and build on the ideas of others at an exponential rate, staff members heard the ideas of others and not only stole them for themselves but worked to make them better. By allowing staff members to wear their brag tags daily along with their staff ID badges, students were able to see staff who were being honored for being innovative and often would ask their teacher how they earned it. The ensuing conversation then encouraged student risk-taking by modeling and celebrating at the teacher’s end. I am proud to say in year one we ran out of the initial two hundred brag tags ordered by the end of the first semester. Not only were staff eager to celebrate each other, but they were actively searching for risk-taking among their peers, opening their doors to others to celebrate what was happening in their rooms, and they began showing up on time each morning to see if they were being honored or to honor their peers.

On the rare occasion that there was no celebration being called for by any of the seventy-five staff members in attendance, I was sure to have one or two successes to highlight in my back pocket ready to honor those that I observed. I was careful not to share this every day as that would create a new expectation. There is real value in having staff find value in each other, recognizing greatness in each other, and not just doing a dog and pony show for the boss in an attempt to earn a 25 cent trinket. If I found people to celebrate every day, people would simply wait for me to pay the tribute. The value came from teachers not only validating each other but in searching for reasons to validate each other.


In your school, I challenge you to:

Celebrate success and add a little swag.

Make risk-taking jingle.

Make risk-taking cool.

Make risk-taking a badge of honor.

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