Monday, January 9, 2017

Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth

“Happy New Year!”  As we enter into 2017, how many times have you heard or expressed these three words?  Like many of you, I have been thinking about my resolutions for the coming year.  Specifically, I started thinking about what would make this New Year “happy”? I couldn’t help but think of a recent experience that was joy-filled.  Last November, my wife and I took Max on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico to celebrate his 3rd birthday.  Not just any cruise, but a Disney cruise. For those of us who have been conditioned by marketing, you know that Disney strives to create, “The happiest place on earth.”  As we set sail, it became apparent that the staff was purposefully attending to our joy.  As I reflect on the voyage, I realize that there are many lessons to be learned for creating a positive climate and culture in our schools from the folks at Disney.

     -     Maintain a relational focus over a transactional one.  They assigned us to a different dinner location each night of the cruise.  On the first night, we were greeted and cared for by a small team of servers.   They quickly learned our names and were spot on in attending to our needs.  We sat with a family with two children.  My surprise came on the second night when we went to a different restaurant.  The serving staff had moved with us!  Additionally, we were seated again with the same charming family that we met the night before.  What a great way to allow time for relationships to form!  The dining experience was not just about getting us fed; it was about making connections AND getting us fed.

How can we be purposeful about this in schools?  One way is to ensure continuity with people on the campus.  Assigning assistant principals and counselors to specific students by alpha, sets up this dynamic. Over the past few years, I have been fortunate to have three assistant principals and three counselors at my junior high.  Rotating them, as partners, through the grade levels gives three years for them to grow relationships.  They are able to serve the same group of kids and grow their professional relationship as well.

     -     Provide a range of experiences based upon interest and readiness.   Each day we were provided a paper copy of the day’s schedule of activities.  The “Navigator” was also available as an app for those who are tech-savvy.  It was easy and exciting to select which experiences we would engage in.  Disney clearly knows that differentiating experiences creates happy cruisers. 

As educators, we are wise when we use choice to motivate our learners.  Even though our learning targets may be dictated, there is no reason our students can’t demonstrate their mastery in multiple ways.  Moving beyond simply differentiating by choice, we need to level our classroom activities to meet the kids where they are.  Simply teaching everyone the same thing, at the same level, the same way, is a sure bet to disengage most everyone in the room.  Imagine if the folks at Disney only offered one standard type of arts and crafts activity that was appropriate for 12-year-olds all day.  There would not be many returning cruisers.  This type of standardization of activity happens in many schools, every day. 
     -     If something goes wrong, take responsibility and work to make it right.  On the first day in our cabin, we noticed a loud banging noise coming from the outside of the ship.  It sounded like the angry ghost of Davy Jones beating on the hull with his rusty chains!  I called the concierge to see if it could be addressed.  Within five minutes an attendant was down and in the room listening for the banging to repeat itself.  As you might imagine, Davy Jones decided to give his banging a break.  Much like the noise your car only makes when the mechanic is not around, we waited and waited.  After 10 awkward minutes, Davy began banging once more with wild abandon.  After hearing this, the gentleman left with a promise to investigate.  Shortly thereafter, we received an apologetic phone call from the concierge stating that they would not be able to address the issue until they were in port.  She offered us another room, on the other side of the ship.  Not only that, they sent an attendant to help us move our luggage, and gave us a $100 ship-board credit!  The final act of goodwill came in the form of a precious Mickey Mouse plush toy for Max.  Clearly the folks on this ship knew how to take responsibility for shortcomings and what steps to take to correct the issue.

Too many times, we fail to model ownership of issues with our students.  This is not just an issue in schools, it is widespread in our society.  The need to seem perfect and deflect responsibility for our mistakes is at the heart of many of our current struggles.  When we are vulnerable enough to say that we made a mistake, and work to correct it, we humanize ourselves and draw closer to our learners. The same is true when we work with parents.  Admitting a shortcoming and then demonstrating the courage to work through it builds respect and trust.  We only get what we model.

     -     Find joy in the journey, not just the destination. Of all the lessons that the Disney folks reminded me of, I believe this is the most important.  Because they attended to relationships, provided engaging experiences, and worked hard to make things right, we enjoyed each day.  When we arrived at that tropical paradise folks call Cozumel, it was wonderful, but not necessarily the highlight of the trip.  The trip was the highlight of the trip. 

How do you ensure that your students are enjoying their journey as a member of your classroom or campus?  Engaging students through clubs, and extracurricular activities gives them the strong sense of belonging that creates emotional engagement.  I believe that it is the job of every adult in a school to cultivate relationships.  It starts with a smile and acknowledgement every day. 

All this leads me back to how my resolutions can bring about a “Happy New Year”.  I have recommitted to my own personal health with the typical focus on diet and exercise.  Upon reflection, I realize what will really make this year happy is to bring joy to others, specifically the students and staff that I lead.  This is at the heart of happiness for me, as a servant leader.