Every year, millions of people flock to Disney World, the self-proclaimed “happiest place on Earth.” Many return year after year to spend their hard-earned money despite the long lines and unpredictable weather. Why? Because of the magical feeling that exists there, and the way people who run the park make them feel. No matter where you come from, what language you speak, or your disability, Disney offers magic for all.
At Mary Williams Elementary, we strive to create a similarly magical feeling. We put our guests—students and parents—first, and work hard to keep those behind the scenes feeling inspired and supported. We also invest in digital technology that we believe can engage students, as well as make the teacher’s job more enjoyable. After all, who wants an autograph from a grumpy Mickey Mouse?
Of course, some people may argue that a school shouldn’t be likened to a theme park, or that entertainment and education don’t mix. We disagree. It’s this student-first way of thinking that’s helped our school go from a School of Improvement to a School of Excellence in just two years. With over 1,000 students, it’s not always easy, but we take pride in the fact that although the lines are long, students come every single day looking forward to the magical moments our classrooms offer.
A focus on customer service
At Disney World, staff are hired for attitude, not aptitude. Whether cast members or third-party employees, the organization unites everyone in a common goal: to help the guest.
At Mary Williams, the magic starts with a similar vision: that students come first. That means hiring with kids in mind. After all, some people may be great educators, but may not be the right fit for our students. Can they relate to English Language Learners? Are they sensitive to students with Special Needs? These questions matter because part of the magic is creating inclusive experiences for all.
Teachers also need to be included, especially when it comes to decision-making. As principal, I truly believe my role is to create conditions that allow everyone else to be successful. Sometimes that means simply stepping back and listening; other times, it means sharing curriculum knowledge or running to Walmart to get oreos for a ‘Phases of the Moon’ project. I want teachers to know we are part of the same team, with a common purpose.
This was the rationale for starting teacher-centered Edcamps during professional development. During these sessions, we don't go in with a plan. Instead, teachers decide what they want to learn, and what they'd like to help others learn, instead of being force-fed one-size-fits-all PD. Once the session is over, staff members know who to reach out and collaborate with. It’s this teacher-led model that’s the key to our next secret to success: using innovative technology to transform our classrooms.
Creating magic through tech and relationships
When I started at Mary Williams, two things were clear: students weren’t fully engaged, and it wasn’t teachers’ faults. So we took a look at our competition—video games, iPads, smartphones—and realized while students were happily spending time on their devices, we were giving them old fashioned paper-and-pencil activities. The solution? Infusing some excitement into our lessons, Walt Disney-style.
Since then, we've experimented with dozens of different apps and online programs to boost learning and interest: 3-D printing, spheros, Osmos, virtual reality, coding, cyber security modules, drones, Robotics, multiple devices. But we never expect teachers to all use the same tools, and we never use tech for tech’s sake. Yes, we want our school to feel like Tomorrowland, but only because we know technology has the power to both differentiate and engage. As a result, the school has become a learning lab for both students and adults: a place of true innovation.
We also know technology cannot replace strong relationships. As Walt Disney said, "you can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality." At Mary Williams, we believe in second chances. We understand that exclusionary practices hurt students and destroy the culture we try to foster. Instead of kicking students out, we lead meetings by letting kids know we believe in them. We also host lunches, book clubs, and play Minecraft and coding games with students, creating a sense of family and fun. And I don't miss an opportunity to ask them about the things we have implemented and ways we can improve as a school. It's the customer feedback that keeps us improving.
Parents: both guests and stakeholders
Although students come first, we also view parents as guests whose experience is just as valued. From the minute a parent walks onto our campus, they are welcomed, whether with the music playing in the office, the colorful murals that adorn the walls, or staff intentionally asking, “How can I serve you today?” We take time to foster relationships and go the extra mile to exceed expectations.
We’ve also found technology useful in serving our guests' needs. Our parents have access to me at any time of the day through Remind, which lets them text me if they need anything. We also use DoJo, Smore, Facebook, and Twitter to communicate, along with the occasional flyer for the refrigerator.
Parents are also regarded as stakeholders who deserve to know how we use our resources and time. Anytime I need an expert, I reach out to our parents first. During school-wide events, I make it a point to ask them for feedback and how we can improve; I call them quarterly to ask for input. At PTO meetings, I reveal market trends and student data. As a result, changes are not a surprise because they are part of everything we do.
The success of Mary Williams is the result of hard work, dedication, and inviting everyone to sit at what I call “the dinner table.” Magic happens as a result of crafting an environment where people feel safe to make mistakes, feel loved, are allowed to think outside the box, and are excited about coming back every single day. Is it easy? No. But if it were easy, everyone would do it. And like Walt Disney said: “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”