August 2019: Staff Development

Is Your School the Happiest Place on Earth?

RABBI YAAKOV SADIGH

I have been enamored with the Walt Disney Company since I first visited Disneyland in Anaheim at the age of 12. However, it was a trip with my children a few years ago that sent me on a journey to unravel the secret of Disney’s Magic. 

It was Yeshiva break and our family was park hopping in Orlando, Florida. We visited Magic Kingdom one day and enjoyed many of the rides and attractions. In the afternoon, we decided to stop off for some ice cream. I handed my children the famous “Mickey’s Premium Bar” and we walked over to a seating area near a lagoon. Just then, a seagull flew over my daughter’s head and in a panic, she dropped her ice cream. Seeing her upset I told her that I will go back to the stand and get her another one. As I walked, I was considering mentioning to the cast member (that’s what all Disney employees are referred to as) what had just happened, hoping that they would serve me another on the house. It turned out that no long explanations were necessary. As soon as I got to the window, there was another ice cream waiting for me. The cast member said “I saw what happened. So sorry about that sir! Now your daughter has one more story to tell when she gets home”. 

What amazed me that day was not that the cast member offered to replace the ice cream, but that it was already waiting for me when I went back to the kiosk. Someone was paying attention to the details. In true Disney fashion they “exceeded my expectations” and needless to say, the rest of the trip was simply magical. 

What is Disney’s Magic? 

When I came home from our vacation, I was interested to learn more about Disney’s approach to leadership, customer service, and employee engagement. In my inquiry, I came across a series of professional courses offered at the Disney Institute. Through ongoing seminars and workshops, the Disney Institute, located both in Anaheim and Orlando, showcases The Business Behind the Magic to industries from around the world.  I was very much intrigued to find out more and signed up for courses in both California and Florida to train with Disney Institute facilitators. I wanted to discover if it was possible to incorporate Disney best practices into the educational system and create a magical school experience for my school community.  

Each time I visited the Institute, I had an opportunity to get a firsthand glimpse of all the backstage secrets that make the theme parks and attractions so magical. While it was all extremely impressive, what resonated with me most was how Disney invests in its people. I had always thought that Disney has a special resource for hiring employees- a select group of people born for creating magical experiences. I quickly learned that this could not be further from the truth. Disney hires workers from the same labor pool that every other organization uses, and with similar salary ranges. Their secret to building an amazing workforce and culture is their unwavering commitment to training and investment in their employees. There are approximately 70,000 cast members at Walt Disney World, making it the largest single-site employer in the country. Whether they work at the ticket booth, operate a ride, man a popcorn stand, dress as a character or clean the bathrooms, each worker believes in the same compelling cause- making Disney World the “happiest place on earth.” This is accomplished by teaching all new cast members through ongoing training and mentoring, the art of exceptional customer service

A Common Purpose 

Today, organizations everywhere understand that their employees are their most important asset. Whether they come face-to-face with customers or work behind the scenes, employees are the vehicle by which excellent service is delivered. That is why Disney credits its cast members for its remarkable 74% customer retention rate. Every institution needs a common purpose that must be shared by all employees in the organization. This common purpose is the one objective that everyone in the organization, regardless of position or status, is collectively trying to achieve. Disney’s common purpose is: We create happiness by providing the finest in entertainment for people of all ages, everywhere. Dunkin Donuts’ “America Runs on Dunkin”, and State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor, State Farm is There”, are great mantras, that clarify their common purpose.  Every institution leader has to ask the following essential question: what is OUR common purpose? 

The Experience Economy 

These days, we are all in show business. Joseph Pine II and James Gilmore write in the Experience Economy (Harvard Business Book Press), we are past the age of an industrial economy where the main purpose of a business was efficiency. During that era, if you walked into a store for a cup of coffee, you would be content if your drink was hot and tasted satisfactory. Today, we are in the era of “Experience Economy.” Customers want memorable experiences and companies must become what Pine and Gilmore call stagers of experiences. Great experiences linger in the memory of an individual who is engaged by the event for many years later. Most parents don’t take their kids to Walt Disney World just for the event itself but rather to make the shared experience part of everyday family conversation for months and even years afterwards (The Disney Institute, 2011).  

The popular author, keynote speaker and executive coach, Carmine Gallo credits former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz for being a major influence in his successful career. Gallo says that Schultz once told him “Coffee is what Starbucks sells as a product, but it’s not the business we’re in. We’re in the people business. I’m passionate about human connection.” (Gallo, 2016) Gallo learned that when a company surrounds itself with people who share a passionate commitment around a common purpose, anything is possible.  

 Schultz often tells the story about how he conceived of the vision for Starbucks. The following is what he related in an interview with Oprah Winfrey: 

I was sent to Italy on a trip for Starbucks and came back with this feeling that the business Starbucks was in was the wrong business. What I wanted to bring back was the daily ritual and the sense of community and the idea that we could build this third place between home and work in America. I walked in and saw this symphony of activity, and the romance and the theater of coffee. And coffee being at the center of conversation, creating a sense of community. That is what spoke to me.” 

What can schools learn from corporate America? 

While the business world was shifting from an industrial economy, and embracing the experience economy, educators began questioning what they can do differently to enhance the school experience for children and ultimately improve academic achievement and promote student growth.  In a groundbreaking research synthesis, authors Anne Henderson and Karen Mapp examined the impact of different family and community connections on student achievement by reviewing more than 50 research studies published since 1995 to compile A New Wave of Evidence- The Impact of School, Family and Community Connections on Student Achievement. In their study, Mapp and Henderson prove how building strong collaborative relationships between school and home with a customer service approach, lead to: 

  • Higher grades in math and reading 
  • Better attendance and behavior    
  • Better social skills and adaption to school 

At a certain point, schools realized the benefits of excellent customer service coupled with their drive to offer cutting edge education. 

The following in an excerpt from Henderson and Mapp’s book Beyond the Bake SaleThe Essential Guide to Family-School Partnership. The story involves Melissa Whipple, coordinator of a parent academic liaison program in San Diego who had an interesting encounter with a very special teacher: 

I was at a staff development training where teachers were discussing an issue in small groups. One teacher was very good at listening. After a colleague offered an opinion, she repeated what she understood that person had said. Then she checked to make sure the group understood the speaker’s point of view. This really let us work efficiently and avoid misunderstandings, because she could listen and rephrase the ideas to others as well. After the meeting, I complimented her on this skill and asked her if she had received it through teacher training. 

“Oh no,” she said. “I used to be a bank teller. I received what they call ‘active listening’ training because most people are so sensitive about their money. We were thoroughly prepared on how to discuss money-related issues with customers.” 

This really struck me: if people are that sensitive about issues related to money, they must be super-sensitive about issues related to their children.  

Teachers deserve training to increase their confidence and capacity to have sensitive conversations with parents. Parents deserve to be treated with insight, skill, and finesse when discussing their child’s education and development. If bank tellers get this training, teachers prep and staff development programs should offer it, too. (Henderson A. T., 2007) 

Today, we are doing a great job preparing our educators to teach well designed lessons, integrating cooperative instruction and eliciting higher order thinking skills. Students are exposed to Center Based Learning, incorporating STEAM, coding, engineering and how to “think out of the box.” The children are learning Chumash analytically and breaking down the complexities of Torah Sh’Beal Peh. Lacking is training teachers to be able to impart the magic of a great educational experience. Increasingly, it is becoming clear that exposure and support in the art of interpersonal relationships, customer service, is more and more necessary. And while a school is not a business, much can be learned from the successful business model that is Disney. 

Seven years ago, when I joined the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County in West Hempstead, I was determined to infuse the Disney vision into the school culture. Through ongoing professional development workshops and brainstorming opportunities, our staff embraced this exciting new initiative centered on effective communication and paying attention to the details. Phone calls and emails were returned promptly, parent concerns were addressed with utmost sensitivity and a positive rapport was formed with every student to meet all their specific needs. Teachers worked on setting the scene in their classrooms: seating arrangements, the decor (bulletin boards and displays of student work), cleanliness and organization, and background music when children worked independently. An atmosphere was created for them to explore and to dream. The HANC Children are greeted when they come off the bus by administrators, teachers, and student council members. This same committee wishes them a good night as they board the buses at the end of the day. Students are respected and valued as customers and guests, and in return they are open to working hard for their teachers. Our staff’s “I am so happy to be here” attitude began permeating the halls and translated into happy students who could not wait to come to school. Today, every staff member from the custodians to the secretaries to the security guard consider their job as the most important role in the school. They come to work every day with one goal in mind: providing the students with a great day of learning and discovery.   

There is a plaque in my office that reads: “Everyone who remembers his own education remembers teachers, not methods and techniques. The teacher is the heart of the educational system” (Sidney Hook). We are all blessed with incredibly talented and dedicated teachers – now let’s just add some pixie dust. 

I look forward to sharing more of Disney’s secrets with you at this year’s Think Tank during my session: Creating Magic in your School.  


Working in the field of Jewish Education for the past 25 years, Rabbi Sadigh serves as the Head of School, HANC-West Hempstead Campuses. Intrigued by Disney’s proven business model, Rabbi Sadigh studied with facilitators from the Disney Institute in both Anaheim and Orlando. He has incorporated Disney’s best practice into an action plan, helping educators create a magical experience for faculty, students, and parents resulting in loyalty and customer satisfaction. Rabbi Sadigh welcomes your comments at Rabbisadigh@hanc.org.   

References 

Cockerell, L. (2008). Creating Magic . New York : Crown Publishing . 

Farfan, B. (2018, September). Disney Store Values and Mission Statement. Retrieved from The Balance Small Business: https://www.thebalancesmb.com/disney-mission-statement-2891828 

Gallo, C. (2016, December 2). Forbes. Retrieved from Forbes.com: https://www.forbes.com/sites/carminegallo/2016/12/02/how-starbucks-ceo-howard-schultz-inspired-us-to-dream-bigger/#16ff7416e858 

Gilmore, J. H., & Pine II, B. (1999). The Experience Economy. Harvard Business School Press. 

Henderson, A. T. (2002). A New Wave of Evidence: The Impact of School, Family, and Community Connctions on Student Achievement. Austin, Texas: National Center for Family and Community Connections with Schools. 

Henderson, A. T. (2007). Beyond the Bake Sale. New York: The New Press. 

The Disney Institute, K. T. (2011). Be Our Guest. New York: Disney Editions. 

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