As a school Principal, I remember feeling like the night before Day One was not dissimilar to New Year’s Eve. I would always be filled with resolutions about how I was going to make the first day, first week, and first month special for our learners--our students, teachers, and parents. Two weeks prior to school before anyone came back, I would begin to plan that first day experience for the kids, the opening staff meeting activities for the staff, and picture how I was going to make parents (both new and returning) feel special at our school. My whiteboard would be filled with ideas, I would be checking YouTube for the funniest and most inspirational videos, and I would be scouring Twitter to see the cool ideas that others in my PLN were going to try in their schools and districts around the world. And while I had the best of intentions about that first day of school, each year I was making the same notable mistake.
I wasn’t using the people who were going to experience Day One in our school to design Day One in our school.
Day One is an experience. We all remember it, don’t we? As students we all remember running to the front door of the school to see “The List”--the long sheets of paper that told us which teacher we were going to have, and who was going to be in our class. We looked forward to reconnecting with friends and reminiscing about barbecues, camping trips, and the occasional summer job mishap that made us a little happier to be coming back to our classes. And as educators, while we might not want to admit it, we still didn’t sleep all that well night before the first day of school: even as the most seasoned of veterans, we couldn’t help but feel a few jitters just like we did when we first started teaching. Day One can be a special time.
So how could we make a Day One experience that surprises our students? One that has our parents raving in the coffee shops and on the sidelines of the soccer fields? And one that inspires our teachers to feel that same excitement on Day Two, Day Three, and even Day 180?
#1 - Appreciate the Current Learner Experience
As school leaders, we have our experiences with Day One,but what does that first day feel like for a new student or new parent? One thing that school leaders can do is reach out to students and parents who went through the experience in the last year or two and ask a basic question:
“What was the first day of school like for you?”
How about the opening staff meeting? School leaders often design this on their own, yet why not get a team of staff members together to ask them this same question? Doing our educational ethnography is key--we need to listen, and to find those ‘pain points’ that people might have so that we can turn them into opportunities. It is also vital to get multiple and varied perspectives: we can’t just ask those staff members who we might like, or who are our “go-to” staff members, we need to get an authentic cross-section of perspectives (Yes, that means listening to people you might not normally ask!)
At a conference a couple of years ago, a colleague said something that has resonated with me to this day--”If you want to know the experience that people are having at your schools, why don’t you ask THEM?”. Seems simple, yet it is something that we often overlook.
#2 - Co-create an illustration of the ideal Learning Experience (LX).
A quick off-ramp that we can take as leaders is to get a whole host of perspectives and information through our ethnography and then run back to our office and try to make learning experiences all by ourselves. Designing the LX is a team sport! When you have all of that valuable ‘Day One Dirt’, bring it to a small team of ‘experts’ (that would be students, teachers, and or parents), and work together to create the vision! As a basic question like
“What are the things we’ve experienced in the past that continue to inspire us today?
and then...listen! Ask people to talk about lasting inspirational experiences that they have had, and not just in schools! Each of us has had an experience that has deeply impacted us, and inspired us to action. What were the elements that inspired us? Which of those elements could we borrow from outside of education that we could bring back INTO education? And as a result, what would we want people to be saying or producing during this experience? These pieces help us form our criteria for success.
#3 - Come up with dozens of ideas that bring your illustration the LX to life.
Remember, this is not just YOU coming up with ideas. I’m just going to say it, you haven’t cornered the market on good ideas: no matter how creative you might be, you alone are no match for a group of people who had already HAD the experience, and are GOING TO EXPERIENCE the LX. Get it? Ask the team a question like
“How might we create a kick-off activity that inspires us and we are talking about for the whole year?”
and see what people come up with. Volume is key here--don’t stop at what seems like a great idea, go for dozens of ideas, even hundreds of ideas! The first good idea is rarely the best idea. When your group is slowing down, you are entering fertile ground; this is where the craziest thoughts tend to come to the surface, the ones you think are not possible (but are VERY possible). When people are starting to giggle from ‘absurd idea’-fatigue, you are getting close.
#4 - Test the best
Now that you’ve got a few ideas that have some potential to inspire the whole year through, it’s tempting to just pick one and go with it. Don’t do it. As Saul Kaplan from the Business Innovation Factor says “Get off the whiteboard and get into the real world!”. It’s time to grab some of your ideas and have OTHERS take them for a test drive! Do they work? What needs tweaking? What do we need more of? What do we need to let go of? We must get feedback we get from ACTUAL consumers of the Learning Experience--not from the people in our design team.
Our design team should be seen as conduits to others--have parents take the idea to other parents, kids to try it with other kids, and staff members to go to even the most reluctant of our colleagues to find out what they think. They will get the real dirt for you! If it doesn’t work with others, don’t stop--ask, “What could make this better!”. As Ronald Heifetz reminds us, in adaptive leadership we cannot see things as “immovable stakes in the ground”, but rather as experiments where we seek to learn more about what is working and what is not. Our measuring stick for success is how close we get to the criteria we created when we co-created our vision for an inspiring experience.
#5 - Get it out there
Once you have battle-tested the pieces of your Day One experience, it’s time to put them together and execute! At this point, you know you have hit the mark if your B to E ratio is high--your “barf to excitement ratio”! You know those butterflies that you get before you do something that is really exciting? If you and your team have those feelings, it is because you care a great deal about those who are going to have this experience--that’s exactly what you should be doing! But because you have worked with a team of learners right from the start and have involved other learners the whole way through, enjoy the moment.
We often choose to celebrate the completion of the project, but remember, it’s not just about the end product. Firstly, our success is in the experience that others have, not in ‘finishing the job’. While you and your team have done a great deal of work, the Learner-Experience is KEY! You should be constantly collecting feedback to make the best even better. But right alongside of the experience you and the team have created for Day One is the experience you and your team have HAD. We create relationships through the time we spend and the things we do with each other--we develop our collective efficacy through doing things that are important and that make a difference to the learners in our schools. (Hattie says that’s pretty important, I hear).
I know, I know. This sounds like it might take a lot of time. But think about those experiences in your life that have made a difference to you, that have TRULY inspired you to do something different. Were they worth it for you? And imagine that you can co-create a Day One experience for your students, your parents, and your teachers that is truly memorable, and develop collective efficacy at the same time. Does that sound like leadership?
This year, lead the creation of the Day One experience WITH your learners. I think you will be surprised by where it takes you and your school.