Sunday, October 18, 2015

What I Learned About Teaching from Disney World

I just got home yesterday from a week of this.

I have been meaning to get to Disney for years.  So, this past winter, on a very cold day when we were snowed in for the umpteenth time, I touched base with a friend/neighbor of mine who's a Disney travel planner, took the plunge, and booked a trip for Fall Break.

Best money I ever spent.  

Because during the week, much more happened than riding Space Mountain, watching "Wishes," and eating Dole Whip (though those were incredible moments).  And on the flight home, as I was thinking about the week, I realized that the moments that meant the most, that were the most memorable, are really lessons about teaching.

Which may seem like a stretch, but bear with me.  

1.  Personal connections are everything.  

So, it's the first day of our vacation, and we're in the middle of the mayhem that is Magic Kingdom on a weekend around 2:00.  It's packed, we're hot and thirsty, and the lines are long.  We were getting water at Liberty Tree Tavern, with is a stone's throw from Cinderella's castle, and out of nowhere music starts playing (which I quickly learned meant SOMETHING was about to happen).  And then.  Then the Disney princesses actually came out of the castle.  I mean, we are talking Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty . . . the whole stinkin' lot of them.  They came out, did a little dance or something, and where we were was just to the back of them, so I got a pretty good view of what was going on.   But then, as they were going back in the castle, they spotted the crowds where we were, and I waved like a madwoman, and I promise you Snow White waved right back at ME.  At me.  No five year old was more excited than I was right then.

And I thought.  It wasn't that she waved.  It was that I felt like she was waving at me.  It was that personal connection that made all the difference.  Seeing the princesses out was one thing, but having one actually wave at me was another.  

I saw this happen all week long.  At the electrical parade one night, a little one next to me - who didn't speak English, by the way - danced up and down when she waved at Cinderella and Cinderella blew a kiss back to her.  Another cried when she got the chance to talk with Belle.  Maybe that's one of the reasons the lines to meet the characters are so long - it's your chance to make a personal connection with someone who means so much to you.

Isn't it like that in our classrooms?  Sure, we can get up and do a dance - we can make things explode, create PowerPoints with animation, dance on the desks - but it's the personal connections that we all (especially our students) crave.  It's having someone notice YOU.  Having someone see you and care about you and make time just for you.  Personal connections mean kids don't just go to school - they learn lessons from great teachers who impact their lives.

2.  You may have taught something for the 27th time, but it's your students' first time to learn it.

My favorite park at Disney is Magic Kingdom, largely because it's just so quintessentially Disney.  And it has the aforementioned castle.  On our last night there, my daughter and I were leaving the park, and as we walked to the end of Main Street I said, "Okay, turn around and take one last good look at Cinderella's castle.  It's the last time we'll see it this trip, and you'll want to remember this moment."  We both turned to see the castle brilliantly lit up against the night sky, took a moment just to drink in the sight, and then turned again to go.  Right as we rounded the corner to exit the park, we met another mother and her young daughter on their way in, and I overheard the mom say, "Okay, honey, you're about to get your very first sight ever of Cinderella's castle!  You'll always remember this moment!"

And I thought - wow.  One girl's taking the time to remember the castle as she leaves while one's taking a moment to remember what it's like when she sees it for the first time.  And it reminded me of lessons I've taught, time and again, that are old hat to me.  So, sometimes, I just kind of go through the motions, forgetting that what's familiar to me is still brand new to my students.  I need to see it through those "remembering" lenses.  To take the time to really think about how this lesson is going; just because I've taught it a lot doesn't mean I've taught it well.  To try to see it as my students do, be truly present and in the moment, make it better, and get excited about it just as I did at the beginning.  It may be my 27th time to teach it, but it's their first time to learn it.

3.  There are a lot of parents with ninja-level skills out there.

Let me tell you about the parenting I saw out there.  

Case 1:  Mom has a 4-year-old having a complete meltdown in the stroller.  Mom rolls the stroller to a wall, with the child facing the wall, turns around, and leans back against the stroller.  A passerby kind of raises their eyebrows and Mom replies, "She'll have to quit sometime, but she won't get a bit of attention from me until she does."  I applauded.  Literally.

Case 2:  Mom and Dad have what appear to be three - count them, three - children under the age of 2.  Mom has a baby carrier on her front and back, with kids in both.  Dad has a backpack on and a carrier on his front, with a kid in it.  Plus a double stroller.  They are waiting to board a bus, and they are happy.  Smiles on their faces, having an honest-to-goodness conversation with each other.  I didn't applaud.  But I really wanted to.

Case 3:  It's after midnight, and my daughter and I are in line to ride Splash Mountain.  A family ahead of us, composed of two teenage girls and mom and dad, are waiting, too.  Dad is bleary-eyed and obviously tired, but when one of the girls asks if they should go, dad replies, "No, honey.  I can sleep later.  This vacation is about family."

Case 4:  We are waiting for fireworks, and a family behind us has backpacks on.  A toddler nearby is whining, and one of the kids in the family whips out a thing of bubbles, asks the mom if he can give them to the toddler, and the grateful mother readily agrees.  The kid spent about half an hour blowing bubbles with the toddler until the electric parade started.  Later I learned that the family regularly packs extra things in their backpacks to share with other kids who are tired or having a hard time.  It's their way of helping to spread the magic.

Wow.  Just.  Wow.

4.  Your kids come first.

If you are a parent yourself, listen to me.  Your kids come first.  At the end of your life, when you are looking back at how you spent your small amount of time here on earth, you will think of your teaching and how you used your talents, but I believe that you will be most concerned with how you parented.

Will you do a perfect job?  Um.  No.  Will you feel guilty?  Um.  Yes.  That comes with the job.

I can let my priorities get out of whack.  The kids I still have at home are teenagers, and it's easy to think that they're self sufficient.  After all, they love pizza for supper.  And what they mainly ask for is transportation and money.  And there is SO MUCH work to do at school.

But my favorite thing about this time at Disney was that for the first time in what feels like forever, we just hung out.  All in the same place.  Doing the same thing.  If you have teenagers, you know how rare that is.  And while the magic of Disney totally worked on me, it was the time that we spent laughing and eating and walking and talking and playing - and even waiting in line - that was truly magical.

Jackie Kennedy once said, "If you bungle raising your children, I don't think whatever else you do matters very much."

Put your kids first.  You'll be a happier and better teacher for it.

So, that is the teaching wisdom I learned from Uncle Walt this past week.  Qualify for PD?  I think it should.  :)

Have a magical week!


  1. I love what you said about the personal connections... it's so true! It doesn't matter how amazing our lessons are if we aren't present with the kids. :)

  2. I love what you said about your kids come first. Starting a career in teaching without children then adjusting to having children is a challenge, but ultimately, my kids come first.