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Musings on EDU Prompted by Disney

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

I have never been an inherently silly person. Am I friendly and do I love to laugh? Yes. Although sarcasm and irony have always been more my style, one of my deep, dark secrets is that I am intensely drawn to silliness, goofiness, and an unadulterated look of joy. I think because it’s so opposite of my personality I marvel at the people who successfully pull this off. It’s one of the reasons I got into teaching to begin with…that lightbulb moment of happiness when a new concept is understood or when kids get so lost in a story that makes them so happy that their voice squeaks and they unintentionally make flapping motions with their arms. Those are my little joyful moments. It’s also one of the reasons I love going to Disney.

Disney as the organization has always fascinated me. Their business and leadership model are clearly successful, and my friend Evan Abramson and I have presented several times on how these models can be successfully applied to education. The simple focus on customer service and high quality standards are why people are willing to pay thousands of dollars to wait in line hours for a two-minute ride.

I looked at Disney through a bit of a different lens when vacationing in Orlando this week. I crowd watched a bit. Paid attention to the little things. I thought about how the ecosystem of Disney related to the ecosystem of education and these random thoughts are what resonated:

If Mickey can’t keep them engaged 100% of the time, we need to give ourselves some grace At any given point at Disney you can look around and see kids clapping and excited and engaged in the Disney experience. However, at any given time you can also see kids disengaged…everything from all out meltdowns to distractedly playing with the hems of their princess gowns. Overall, Disney for kids is very much like a classroom. There is most likely an adult driving what is happening around them. There have been adult Disney Cast Members whose sole purpose is to plan what they will do and the experience they will have in a day. The parents at Disney are desperate for the kids to be engaged because they have dreamt of the day they’d be able to bring their kids and the fun they’d have, like teachers desire to make a difference in kids’ lives and increase their love of learning. But, not even Disney can keep the smallest attendees engaged all the time. And if Disney can’t, a business designed to be a wonderland for children, then we need to understand that while we need to work toward empowerment of learning and engagement of students, it’s just not going to happen 100% of the time. They are going to have off moments. They’re going to need brain breaks and the introverts are going to need to retreat to recharge. They’re going to have different times where they are more engaged than other times and other students and that’s okay. While we can strive to make learning fun and engaging and empower our learners to want to know more, achieving that most of the time is an amazing feat. Just ask Disney.

Life in Social Media We were standing in line for one of the Toy Story rides and the wait was an astounding two hours. Way too long for an adult to wait let alone the little ones who were already too tired to even know what they wanted. In front of us there was a family with two kids that were maybe 3 and 5. The boy was beside himself with sadness about the line and was acting out in every way possible including hiding behind statues behind the “do not cross” lines and pinching his dad’s nose with every ounce of strength he could muster. Now, I’m in no way negatively looking at what was happening in front of me. Goodness knows that I had four kids under the age of six by the time I was 27 years old, had really no idea what I was doing as a parent, and I definitely had these moments as well so absolutely no judgement. It just was the way it was. The boy was super active the whole time in line. His parents were frazzled and embarrassed…and then we got to the talking, life-sized Mr. Potato Head. The parents grabbed the kids and for one minute their family all came together with smiles and hugs for the camera only for them to put the kids down into chaos again.

I noticed the mom post the picture instantly to Facebook and thought about being the reader of that post and the impression it would leave of the perfect vacation. It reminded me how much goes on in our lives that we never post to social media. I look at my various social media platforms and often think about everything I’m not doing and how others seem to be doing it all. All the podcasts and blogs I’m not reading. The new literature that I know would push my thinking and I feel less than adequate to even be writing a blog myself. I see my presenter friends presenting and my teacher friends doing these amazing lessons that I never did. I need to remind myself that not everyone is doing all those things all the time and that if they post the latest podcast they just listened to, it may have been one of twenty things they had to do on their to-do list that they didn’t get done…just like me. Many of us deal with manageable chaos from day to day but only the good stuff gets posted. Being aware of that and knowing that we can’t compare our paths to others is important for understanding how we can better feel about ourselves.

Aim Higher to Launch Farther In many Disney movies and in the parks you can see evidence of high expectations. It’s also evidenced in the business model and the ongoing support and professional development that Disney Cast Members receive in order to do their jobs well, along with the expectation that they are always in character. Always. You’ll never see Cinderella hiding in a corner taking a break and finishing a cigarette. She is always Cinderella until she takes off her costume. These high expectations and attention to detail is what makes Disney magical…and successful.

I’ve always believed that with the right support, relationship, encouragement, and learning opportunities people (students and adults) will rise to high expectations. They must be given what they need to be successful, but when given the chance and when they understand that someone believes in them, they will work that much harder to become the expectation. I’ve found this to be true in both my classroom when I taught, with teachers when I coached, and in my current department. The feeling of internal triumph when you’ve met a high expectation can’t be replicated. It makes a person feel good about themselves and want to do it again. And again.

There are so many facets of the Disney success that we can apply to education. The business model is clearly one to follow. Their customer service and high expectations for guest satisfaction is an organizational focus. The logistics and timing of everything from shows to rides is well planned and thought through prior to implementation. While all of these things are examples we could follow in education, what I’ll remember most from this trip is the people watching and being privy to witness the moments of sheer joy…the same ones that I became a teacher for.



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