Last fall, Lake Mary High School principal Dr. Donna "Mickey" Reynolds shocked her students when she joined the school's step team in a pep rally performance that brought the house — and then the internet — crashing down.
How could she top that? Last Friday, in preparation for the varsity football team's game against the school's oldest and biggest cross-town rival, Reynolds brought in back-up: 30 members of her faculty and staff joined the school's award-winning dance team, the Lake Marionettes, for a pep rally surprise that managed to leave students anything but speechless.
A video of the performance quickly spread across the internet again, gaining notice both for the dance team's talent and the teachers' willingness to join in the fun in the name of school spirit. It's currently been viewed over 94,000 times (and counting) since Friday afternoon.
Though these pep rally surprises are meant to raise spirit for the Central Florida high school's athletic teams, Reynolds told TODAY Parents they serve a bigger purpose as well: to foster connection between the adults and the teenagers beyond the classroom. She believes that moments like this will help build relationships between the faculty and the students they teach.
"The only way to make sure that we have a healthy, safe school environment where kids can learn and thrive and feel a part of it is if we connect with every student," she said. "We have to make a concerted effort to make those connections; we've seen what happens when we don't."
Reynolds said the school is working on this in several ways, including asking teachers to sign up to serve as a personal advocates for struggling students and a Freshman Success class for ninth graders identified as needing a little extra support. The teachers involved with the Freshman Success class check in on their students regularly — both academically and emotionally. "These kids know they have one person in their corner," said Reynolds.
The pep rally performance was just one more way to show students that the teachers are real people who will put themselves out there for the benefit of the students, she said. "You gotta let the kids make fun of you a little sometimes. And it's fun, too. It's great for staff morale," she added.
Stephanie Kersten is in her fourteenth year coaching the Lake Marionettes. For the pep rally performance, she told the dance team members to reach out and ask faculty and staff members to be their partners on Monday for the Friday performance. Then, she sent out an instructional video for the participating teachers to learn at home and held just two short practices for them after school before their debut. The Marionette dancers themselves didn't learn the entire routine until the day before the pep rally.
"The girls loved it," said Kersten, noting that the dance included everyone from the school's new dean of discipline — who surprised the students with step team moves from his college days — to English, chemistry, and physics teachers. Principal Reynolds, who was a captain of the Lake Marionettes when she was a student at Lake Mary High, joined in too. Even two pregnant teachers agreed to dance.
"It's about unity, getting everybody on the same page," said Kersten. "The teachers and staff members doing that really helped drop that line between them and their students. Those adults really, really want to connect with those kids in any way possible, even if it means going out there and making themselves vulnerable, dancing even if they can't. The student body went crazy for it!"
Kersten's daughter, Jaliyah "Juicy" Kersten, 17, is this year's captain of the Marionettes and front and center in the viral video. She told TODAY Parents she enjoys the pep rallies because of the energy of the students, and she loved dancing with the teachers. "I was most surprised by our science teacher dancing," she said. "He took it very seriously. He was so funny."
Lake Mary High School's head football coach Scott Perry, who appears at the end of the video and tears the banner apart to end the performance, said that the faculty and staff's efforts are paying off for his players as well as the student body at large. "School spirit is one thing — There's nothing like having thousands of teachers and students all fired up for our team on game day. But what's just as impressive are the personal connections I see all the time," he told TODAY Parents.
"Each week, our players pick a teacher to wear their jerseys to school on game day. The players love it and look forward to it. And to the teachers, it's an honor. They're so invested in these kids, and so personally connected, that they'll put in a 50-hour work week and then come out and spend their Friday night on the sidelines along with their own families, cheering our players on. It's pretty amazing."
Reynolds said she hopes people will take heart from seeing this moment at her school. "The American dream of public education and kids getting involved in their schools and Friday night football and dressing up for the pep rally is alive and well in this country, and this is proof of that," she said. "You have dedicated folks who are working in the building and spending all kinds of extra hours with kids trying to engage them in healthy and fun activities. The connection between kids and schools is a healthy one, and we want to promote that."