Become the CEO of your Classroom V2.0

When I started this blog I wanted to explore strategies in order to make students, teachers, and classrooms more successful. One of the first posts I did explored the values and strategies that Pixar used in order to become the innovative company that it is today. I wanted to demonstrate how the principles that Pixar used can be applied to motivate and engage students, making you the Chief Education Officer (CEO) of your classroom.

I believe that business culture can inspire specific ideas within our classrooms. With this in mind, I continue to read about how businesses apply strategies to help them improve. I recently finished reading two books by Lee Cockerell, Creating Magic, which explores leadership and management strategies at the Walt Disney World Resort and The Customer Rules, which explores 39 strategies for delivering exceptional customer service. These strategies have been implemented at the Walt Disney World Resort and are explicitly taught to other business professionals that travel to the Disney Institute to take professional development courses. Again, many of these ideas and strategies are naturally applicable to the classroom. Let’s examine several of these strategies to see how they might work in schools.

Give specific feedback immediately and effectively. When Lee Cockerell was in charge of Walt Disney World Resort Operations, he would spend time on a daily basis walking through the amusement parks. During his time in the parks, he would look for indications of strong performance in customer service and an adherence to the principles of Disney. Whenever Lee noticed something that needed to be fixed, he would provide feedback in a timely manner. Specific feedback would be given to an individual person when necessary or focused on a team when it applied to a group as a whole. Cockerell might tell his team, “we are having trouble getting people seated in our restaurants and we are working on that.” Cockerell used feedback to coach his team to better performance. The same should happen in your classroom everyday. When providing feedback to students, make sure that you are not only correcting students, but also modeling for students. Show them how to improve writing, or guide them through solving a word problem. When you notice that a student has done something incorrectly, provide feedback in a timely manner. Make sure that you are monitoring student performance on a daily basis, checking in with each student. Provide specific feedback for students to improve their performance just as Disney does with its’ employees.

Think ahead. In 2004, Orlando was struck by Hurricane Charley. Walt Disney World cast members spent the hours before the arrival of the impending storm tying down loose objects across Disney property. Hotel guests returned to their rooms to find patio furniture had been moved from the outside terrace to the inside of the room. A note was left for guests explaining that the furniture would be returned once the storm passed. The Disney Parks were able to open up the day after the storm because of the procedures that Disney management had put into place before any storm actually struck. Time and effort was dedicated to thinking ahead and putting plans in place to respond at the first sign of trouble. Educators would do well to follow this practice. Teachers should think ahead to support and meet the needs of all students. When planning instruction, teachers should consider what students may struggle with during a lesson, and have several plans in place to help students. A plan of action should include what steps will be taken when students miss key targets or benchmarks during a lesson. Determine which red flags will identify struggling students, and think ahead to be prepared with prescribed actions when students do struggle.

Use ARE (Appreciation Recognition Encouragement). On an evening trip to one of Disney’s many on-property restaurants, Lee Cockerell had a wonderful interaction with his waiter during his meal. He was surprised to learn that the waiter had a complimentary letter from him folded up in his wallet. The waiter pulled the letter out and shared it five years after he had been given the letter of recognition from Cockerell himself. ARE is the acronym that Lee Cockerell uses to describe the positive motivation and encouragement that he gives to staff. ARE is used to build up confidence and self-esteem among both individuals and teams that are performing exceptionally well. The appreciation, recognition, and encouragement might come in the form of a letter, or a thank you note, a positive word or a pat on the back. Cockerell believes that encouragement can make a difference for employees, making them work harder toward the mission of the company. When you use ARE in the classroom, you can expect the same results that Disney sees from its’ cast members. Provide students with appreciation, recognition, and encouragement. Use a class meeting to recognize a struggling student who did really well on a weekly test. Make a positive phone call home to a student who showed kindness to another student who was being picked on. By showing this type of appreciation to students, you will build a positive classroom culture, while getting students to invest in their own learning and performance.

Don’t get bored with the basics. Disney focuses on the basics, the small things that lead a business to success rather than failure. When you walk into any Disney Resort or Theme Park, the first thing you will notice is the cleanliness. Each day, cast members dedicate themselves to making sure that every resort or park area is as clean as possible. Procedures and routines are in place to ensure that employees know exactly what to do with regard to the cleanliness of the park. The focus on cleanliness starts from the top, and employees know that this small detail affects the overall customer experience in a major way. Basics can also make a difference in the classroom. The daily routines and procedures that you put into place will help to provide students an effective and efficient classroom. When meeting with small groups, have a procedure for what other students should do if they have a question or need help. Establish routines for students to check homework with a partner or how to work quietly while other students are trying to read. While these routines may seem minor, they will have a huge impact on the overall learning environment in your classroom.

Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Prior to opening a new hotel or restaurant, Disney runs through multiple rehearsals, giving cast members a chance to role play with other employees in order to get it right once there are actual customers involved. The hotel or restaurant staff are put to the test, trying to meet the demands of those role playing “customers.” Staff must meet the demands and needs of these imaginary customers in a way that stays true to the ideals of Disney. Only after cast members have practiced and perfected routines and procedures do the hotels and restaurants open to the general public. As Lee Cockerell says in the book, “Never practice on your customers.” This advice can serve you and your students as well. As a teacher, never try out something with students that you haven’t already rehearsed. When I taught fifth grade science, my second lesson of the day would always be my best, because I had practiced an experiment prior to meeting with my first period class, run through with first period, and made adjustments by the time I saw my second period students. The rehearsal prior to meeting with students allowed me to identify possible problems and address them when I modeled for students.

Treat everyone as a VIP (Very Individual Person). When I traveled to Disney World with my family a few years ago, we received a personalized booklet in the mail, tailored to our specific trip plans. Ensuring that each visitor gets exactly what they need is something that Disney does very well. A variety of options allow each person to personalize and customize their vacation based on their wants and needs. Lee Cockerell argues that every customer is a VIP, a very individual person, and deserves to be treated accordingly based on their wants and needs. This lesson also applies to your students. On the first day of school, you will encounter a number of students who enter your classroom needing a variety of supports, having very specific interests, and with individual hopes and dreams. It is your role as the Chief Education Officer to make sure that you are meeting the needs of all students, while also encouraging student voice and choice to make sure that student wants are addressed as well. Provide the student who has difficulty sitting still a desk and chair in the back of the classroom so that he or she may stand without impacting the learning of other students. Allow a student who has no support at home a chance to meet with a classmate to review homework at the beginning of the day. Make adjustments that allow each students to be successful based on his or her individual needs.

Try to get a WIN (What’s Important Now). Lee Cockerell uses another acronym in the book to refer to times when an employee must decide when to serve a customer. While there is always some aspect of the job that needs to be completed at Disney, cast members must always focus on customer service and customer relationships first. The cleanliness of a gift shop is important, but not at the expense of a customer. Employees must ask themselves, “What’s important now? Should I wait on this customer or continue to rearrange these products on the shelf?” According to Cockerell, there is only one answer to this question. After all, the customer rules.

As CEO of your classroom, you will be faced with these types of decisions every day. Try to decide what’s important now. Should I meet with a child who is struggling to pick a book during independent reading time or clean up after this morning’s science experiment? You may decide to clean the lab equipment with distilled water after the experiments since it might not be wise to let the kids do that themselves. (You can buy demineralised water from a supplier near your location.) It doesn’t mean you may abandon the student who requires your assistance with reading. You can find a separate time slot to talk to that kid and help them. These choices you make as a teacher will impact your relationships with students, colleagues, and parents.

You may face other instances where you can be indecisive about what to do. Say, for example, after school, should you call a parent to let them know that their child had an awesome week at school or grade 5 more essays from the pile on your desk? Strengthening a relationship should always take precedence over the daily workload that you deal with. When facing one of these decisions, start by using the WIN concept, ask yourself, “What’s important now?”

We have much to learn about our students and classrooms from Disney and other innovative businesses. Take these lessons and apply them to your classroom. Start by reading Creating Magic and The Customer Rules by Lee Cockerell. If you’ve already read the books, reread them. Then apply the lessons and strategies to your own teaching experience. Become (or continue to be!) the Chief Education Officer of your classroom.

By @RACzyz

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Cockerell, Lee. Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. 2008.

Cockerell, Lee. The Customer Rules: 39 Essential Rules for Delivering Sensational Service. 2013.

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