Know Your Audience Part 1
Mickey's 1st Commandment for design is know your audience. It's the reason you are frequently greeted by tablet-carrying, light blue shirt wearing cast members as soon as you enter the park. They are studying "guestology" and figuring out what it is you want. Guestology was responsible, for example, for the creation of Soarin' as guest surveys showed that an experience many wanted was to fly. It seems quite simple, really and yet, in education, I'm not sure we spend nearing enough time getting to know our audience. I recently had an experience that shows the power behind doing so.
One of the first "teacher books" I read was Ron Clarke's The Essential 55. The book became very popular, very quickly after it was turned into a movie, the Ron Clarke Story. Sadly, within a few years I saw many educators turn against Clarke with complaints that he was too much of a disciplinarian or simply disciplined inappropriately. I think his real "crime" in their eyes was going off to start a charter school. Both complaints are nonsense in my opinion. I greatly enjoyed the movie and was changed by the book. It is inspiring and challenging. In it Clarke shares some of the incredible experiences he was able to provide for his underprivileged students ranging from plays on Broadway to trips to the White House.
As a fairly new teacher at the time I felt like I wanted to do things like that for my kids but never would be able to. It was one of those Dangerous Minds, teacher-movie things that the rest of us just can't do. Still, I wanted it. One thing I know about my audience is that they are desperate for inspiration. My kids are saddled with low expectations and a community that offers them little to no vision beyond our city boundaries. Early on in my career we used to take our elective kids to the beach, a mere hour away, for our end of the year trip. It was stunning how many of our kids (again, an hour away) had never seen the ocean. I went to school in the same district where I now teach so I'm personally aware of the issue. But, how? How do I provide those things? I was sure I couldn't.
In time I realized part of the problem was that I didn't know my students well enough to even know what experiences they wanted and didn't have. In the last few years I've made my main focus getting to know my kids. I started opening my room an hour before school starts each day and for 90 minutes a day during my prep and lunch. I invite them to come in, hang out and play games. I get to know the kids who come in very well and they serve as a bit of a focus group me to get an understanding of the ones who don't as well. I quickly learn about cultural trends and whatever the heck the latest word to describe something good is.
Beyond that, these times serve as a huge recharge for me. Seeing the kids as they really are (or at least closer to it) with their guard down humanizes them in a way that helps me see past their little annoyances. I absolutely love playing board games with them as few of them take any time to just sit and socialize with their peers let alone with adults. It is sorely lacking in our world right now and this lets it happen. I'm one of the most "known" teachers on campus simply because I come into contact with so many of the kids through these game times, even those that aren't "mine." It's great!
Most importantly though these times allow me to learn things about my audience that I simply would not know otherwise. In the most extreme cases I've learned about kids who were facing bullying issues, getting into drugs and even suicidal. More often I learn the little things that they enjoy - Angie's love of BTS, Ethan's love of Smash Bros.,
Last year I got to learn about Valerie's love of theater. I was playing the Hamilton soundtrack one day before school when she came in. I always have music playing during these open times. It is almost always MY music as I want my kids to use this time to get to know me as well. Valerie told me how much she loved Hamilton and I could see the excitement in her face. We talked about how she'd been interested in theater for a long time. When I attended Schoolhouse Rock Live at a local theater I brought her the program and told her about it. She already knew about it and had plans to go for her birthday. When she did we got to talk all about it. Did any of my other kids go? I honestly have no idea. I wouldn't have known about Val going if not for getting to know her earlier in the year. I kept up with her interest and attended a performance of a play she wrote and directed. I loved that I got to support her interest just by showing my own interest in it too.
Then it all paid off big time. A few weeks ago I attended the Courageous Creativity Conference at Disneyland. I went on a tour of the Hyperion Theater where Frozen Live is housed and met with the stage manager Christine. At the end of the tour she gave us her contact info and told us that if we had any students interested in theater that she'd be happy to meet with them and give them a tour if they ever came to the show. Valerie popped into my head immediately. I told the stage manager about her and she said she'd love to meet her and even let Valerie sit up in the booth with her and listen into the stage directions on a headset. I said "I'll hold you to that!" and things were in motion.
After the conference I contacted Valerie's family (who I had also gotten to know a little bit through school events and Val's play) and told them about the opportunity. Her mom was elated and said "Valerie was excited when she heard me say your name, she knew it had to be something good!" Mom contacted Christine and set up a date to make it all happen. It turned out they were attending on a day I was going for my little cousin's birthday. Now, to be fair, if you plan a day at Disneyland there's a pretty good chance it's a day I'll be there, but still, it worked out great!
I met up with the family shortly before the show and Valerie was all smiles. She said she was so nervous she was shaking. We were given VIP seating for the show and after some insistence by me we got the message to Christine that Valerie was there to see her. Things like this often take a bit of force-of-will to see them through. There were a lot of moving pieces that, obviously, not everyone was aware of. The ushers kept shuffling us off to the next one. I wasn't going to let Val miss out, not when we'd come this far. Finally, I just told one "We need to get a message to Christine now, not after the show. This young lady is supposed to sit with her for the show." That worked. Christine came down from the booth shortly after and took Val up with her. It was an awesome moment.
A moment later Val's mom joking said to her dad "Why are you crying?!" He asked "Why are YOU crying?!" I responded with, "Why am *I* crying?" It was just that cool. Valerie was getting the opportunity of a lifetime. One she will never forget and I sincerely hope will catapult her to this career she has dreamed about since she was a toddler. Seeing her up in that booth with the headset on was simply magical. After the show Christine took Val and the family backstage so they could see some of the amazing technology behind the show. They took some pictures on stage and we headed out. Val and her family were endlessly thankful for my support.
Honestly though, I didn't do much of anything. I sent an email and made a phone call. That's it. This all happened because I took the time to know my audience. I got to provide a Ron Clarke level experience because I was ready in the moment of opportunity with that knowledge. If I hadn't thought of Val right away I probably never would have contacted Christine but knowing her passion made it easy. We can do so much for our kids, obviously not often on a level like this, when we take the time to get to know them. Yes, it comes at a cost of our time but hey, just grade less, nobody likes doing that anyway. The kids will be happier and so will you!