Innovative Tools & Ideas to Re-Imagineer Schools for 21st Century Learners

Universally, the company that sets the standard for excellence at the highest level in terms of truly creating a unique and magical experience for “children of all ages” is Disney. As Walt Disney himself once 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 Staten Island Technical High School, we live this very philosophy by fostering a collaborative school climate and culture that optimizes 21st century learning at the highest level through innovative curriculum, use of technology, and by creating unique learning environments and experiences. As a school leader who is also a die-hard Disney fan, I have followed a similar set of tenets that has made The Walt Disney Company’s success sustainable in all its endeavors. In this article, I share some best practices that I have found most effective and easily adaptable in any school setting.

But first, you may be wondering, “Is it even possible to apply the principles of a theme park and entertainment pioneer to a school setting?” I say, “Why not?” Given all that we’re competing with in modern society to capture our students’ attention long enough to get them into school and then create the conditions for meaningful learning to take place, it’s worth the effort to try at least some of these ideas. They key is to start small and simple, just like Disney did with a mouse!

Walt Disney likened guests’ experience when visiting his theme parks to a movie. Think of the culture and climate you’re creating in your school as a production with a setting, theme, and narrative. The Walt Disney Company has long tweaked the language when referring to various aspects of its theme park business, and, I will do the same here. For example, Disney refers to  “customers” as “guests.” In our setting (school), these “guests” are our “students and families.” Disney also refers to “employees” as “cast members,” which are our “faculty and staff.” Our “cast members” play an integral role both “onstage” (in the classroom) and “offstage” (outside of the classroom). To connect all these components, the company refers to a “chain of excellence” which has four parts. Again, as a school leader and Disney fan, I like to apply this chain to our school’s philosophy and practice:

  1. Leadership Excellence – If leaders take care of their people (cast members/faculty and staff), they will take care of their guests (students and families) in return.
  2. Cast Excellence – Treat “employees/cast members” (faculty and staff) like “customers/guests” (students and families). Promote a supportive environment by soliciting information from everyone, while recognizing and honoring employees for how they contribute to the overall school experience.
  3. Guest Satisfaction – Build time into your schedule to interact with others and build relationships. Exceed expectations by listening, listening more, reflecting, and implementing suggested changes for all to experience.
  4. Repeat Business – We should take interest in and pay attention to what people are saying about us. Monitor what faculty, staff, students, families, and the public at large are thinking and saying about your school through surveys, focus groups—and to varying degrees, even social media.

Let’s break down this “chain of excellence” as it relates to a school and explore some ways in which you can “re-imagineer” (rhymes with “Mouseketeer”) your school for 21st century learners.

I. Leadership Excellence. My office, which was quite spacious, used to be on the second floor, far removed from the general office, where my faculty and staff arrived each morning. At some point, I realized that I was missing a critical opportunity to monitor the temperature, climate, and social emotional well-being of the faculty and staff as they came to school each day. 

So, I moved from this office to a much smaller, galley-style space in the general office, with the ultimate trade-off: a front-row seat for each staff member’s arrival. It was here that I could have over 120 meaningful interactions and conversations each morning and effectively reset the school “thermostat” as needed over time.

This move has resulted in helping to create a warm and fun atmosphere for faculty and staff to walk into each morning, which has also had a powerful, positively-charged domino effect in our classrooms to the benefit of our students. When teachers and staff start their day off on a high note, with a smile, laughter, or celebratory recognition, they will more likely have positive interactions with their students, setting the tone for the day.

Consider some of these ideas to fine-tune your practice of Leadership Excellence:

1. Decorate the spaces where your faculty, staff, and students arrive to start their day or gather for breakfast and lunch. When possible, decorate yourself, too! Doing so, enables you to create a 4D experience for your students, faculty, and staff with sights, sounds, and smells. Consider:  

    • Holiday-themed inflatables. The ones that you see in the front yards of homes are also perfect for school. 
    • Aroma therapy. Use scents that create immediate connections to memories, moments, food, places, and spaces that bring joy and excitement. 
    • Music instead of monotonous bells. Ditch the monotones that signal the start and end of each class. Curated playlists are easy to implement and update. Also, consider apps that allow you to make announcements from your phone, anywhere and anytime. 
    • Your older digital projectors. Use them to create digitized projected art on the walls and floors of your school instead of discarding them (see

    Recent Examples from the Fall 2022 Holiday Season:

    Fall 2022 Examples of themed events to build community, enhance the learning experience and culture and climate of school, making school a “can’t miss” experience:

    2. If you can’t change your office to where your faculty, staff, and students are, then take your office to them:

    3. Have fun with pop-culture connections that capture your school’s spirit. Staten Island Technical High School’s acronym (SITHS) is the name of the infamous Star Wars antagonist, The SITH. Naturally being a Star Wars fanatic, it’s always fun to create opportunities to capitalize on such connections to our school (see 

    II. CAST EXCELLENCE. Remember that you and your faculty and staff are “characters”—household names in the lives of the children and families we serve. Celebrate them and amplify their contributions by shouting them out—loud, proud, and often.

    Instead of only one week each year, consider turning faculty and staff appreciation into a daily or weekly event. The following are some creative ideas for making it a more frequent practice: 


    As a school leader, you are the Storyteller-In-Chief. So, consider making time to be the Listener-In-Chief as well. Here are some unique ways to connect with your students (faculty, staff, and families) to garner valuable feedback that you can act on. 

    • Creating a Collective Public Service Video Announcement communicating Student and Faculty Feedback as one unified and aligned message: 
    • Compassionate Systems Thinking Focus Groups: 
    • Implementing “Talk-nology” – A Course Developed to Foster “Social” Skills (SEL) in order to Activate Social Awareness, Student Voice and Agency to Catalyze Change  – 
    • Using the Compassionate Systems Thinking Iceberg activity to conduct an Inquiry Based Focus Group to identify areas that students view as positively and negatively impacting their success in school. Blank Systems Thinking Iceberg; Sample Systems Thinking Iceberg created collaboratively with students:; Full Video of a Systems Thinking Iceberg Session with 9th graders –
    • Student Lead Faculty Conference Discussion:
    • Using (Free) to connect with students and collect and amplify student voice and agency:, SI Tech’s Practice: ,
    • Using to create a safe space for students to collect and curate their best moments in a Social Media like environment, that mimics LinkedIn and allows students to showcase and promote their best selves as they develop their brand and identity. 

    I hope these examples serve you as well as they have served our school community. Practice makes progress, and nobody knows your school community better than you do. Enjoy the process of learning more as you lead your school, and in the spirit and words of Walt Disney’s famous motto, “Dream. Believe. Dare. Do.”

    Mark Erlenwein is the principal of Staten Island Technical High School in Staten Island, NY, and the 2022 New York Principal of the Year.  Edited by Jennifer Dubin, Editor of Principal Leadership magazine.


    Griffiths, L. (2018, March 13). Success starts with leadership excellence—the Disney Philosophy. ZEN and the Art of Legal Networking.’s%20philosophy%20is,Guest%20Satisfaction

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