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Finding Theme Through Identity

The Toy Story Story

Who are you as a school? Pay attention to the phrasing of that question. Grammatically, schools aren't 'who's' they are 'what's'. But schools are made of people. And just like people schools have unique identities. An identity is a living and breathing thing that we need to care for. Let me ask that question another way...what is your school's secret sauce to success?

These questions may be difficult to answer. The truth is that the daily grind pushes the answering of those questions to the back of our priorities list. But let's not make that storytelling mistake. The mistake is thinking that the answers of those questions are not important. Unlocking our school's purpose and identity will lead to our collective health and happiness.

To illuminate the evolution of a school or organization's identity we will dive into the Pixar Story. To be more specific, the Toy Story...story.

I love that scene. Although it comes at the end of one of my favorite movies it somehow marked a beginning. Yes, a beginning of a new friendship between Woody and Buzz but also a new adventure that Pixar was about begin. The world loved that moment too. Toy Story instantly dazzled audiences. Children laughed, parents cried and even the critics were completely awestruck. Audiences were impressed by Pixar's balance between technical brilliance and endearing heart. Toy Story had made history by being the first computer animated feature film ever. This was a stark contrast to the 2D hand drawn animation that had been the norm for decades since the 1937 debut of Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All told, Toy Story made $373 million dollars worldwide.

Pixar as a company was everyone's new favorite stock after it went public. It seemed like this computer animation company was an overnight success. But as one of Pixar's founders, Steve Jobs, would remind everyone, "It only seemed that way."

As a teacher, I thought I would be an overnight success. Somehow I subconsciously must have come to believe that old adage, "those who can't do...teach". I figured that my content knowledge, work ethic, and a little bit of charm would be all that it took for me to become the inspirational teacher that I knew my students deserved.

I am sure you are now rolling your eyes because everyone knows that teaching isn't easy at all. No matter how well prepared you are you will always be confronted by new challenges.

Much of my first year was a series of unsuccessful experiments. I was trying to feel my way through each day. That ultimately led to a lot of frustration, anxiety, dread and burnout. Something was definitely missing.

Schools forge their identities in the same way. There are many things that leaders do to cultivate a strong culture and identity. Unfortunately, much of a school's culture comes by accident. There is no amount of team builders that will be replace the impact of the way that people feel everyday, day in and day out. So does that mean there is nothing that we can do?

Not exactly. The storyline that runs through our school isn't contrived it comes from inspiration. So how do we find it? And more importantly how do we keep it?

The original Toy Story was somewhat similar. The creators did not have much movie making experience. They were armed with this cutting edge technology. They had also cut their teeth on smaller projects. They animated cartoon fruit and toothbrushes for commercials. Developing an entire feature film would be a whole new monstrous challenge.

To help them get started, Pixar sought a partnership with the kings of the industry...the Walt Disney Company. They sought Disney to teach them the business, distribute the film and guide them through the paces.

Luckily Pixar did know a few things about the movie that they wanted to make.

  • They didn't want it to be a musical

  • They didn't want it to be about a princess.

This was a drastic deviation from Disney's bread and butter for the majority of the 20th century. Disney saw this as an opportunity to make a new kind of movie. They told Pixar that they wanted the movie to have an adult 'edge' to it. That simply meant quick witted and sarcastic humor.

The result did not turn out so well. When the Pixar team pitched some of the rough draft to the executives at Disney, everyone was horrified by how vile the Woody character had turned out. He was just mean. I'm not lying...check this out.

The scenes from that meeting are forever known as the 'Black Friday Reel'. Like you, everyone was asking themselves what is wrong with this movie? Where did we take a wrong turn. The answer was actually pretty simple. It was no longer the movie that the Pixar team wanted to make.

One adjustment at a time. That's usually how bad cultures manifest themselves. It's often no one's fault. It happens one well-intended step at a time. Let's take a look at Pixar's journey to this point:

  1. Invent computer animation technology GOOD

  2. Produce animations for films and commercials GOOD

  3. Take on challenge to produce a full length feature film GOOD

  4. Seek out guidance from trusted mentors + secure valued support GOOD

  5. Produce edgy children's movie BAD

So what happened? Each decision led to another which eventually produced what they hadn't intended. Unintended consequences are the residue of daily life. It is the job of a leader to see every moment and connect them with a thru line. Great leaders see that thru line as a way to communicate shared value. They see a storyline.

Each individual step seems fine on its own. In the case of Pixar, there actions made sense as a thru line but not a storyline. Therefore when it came to telling a story, they trusted others instead of themselves. Pixar needed to see that the edgy directive from Disney helped Disney explore new options and not their own. So the strategy went from being Pixar's to being Disney's. They no longer owned the storyline that they were creating. This deviation ultimately leads to a disillusionment that we all share and feel (just like Buzz).

The number one thing that schools should do is to stick to the basics. It is important that we disabuse ourselves of the notion that things will be perfect right away. Just like when a team is in a slump it is vital to go back and remember how to do the little things right. It is also important to remember what was it that made your school successful in the past.

  • Was it your work ethic?

  • Your instructional vision?

  • Your ability to empathize and connect with people?

When your school is struggling, it is easy to not like who you are as a teacher, leader or student and that can lead to some tearful drives to work. In those times you have to go back to what makes you...well, you. You can start to see why your identity as a school can be really important. It is important to remember who you are...just as Woody grew frustrated trying to remind Buzz.

Needless to say Toy Story was a big success and the Pixar team definitely found that winning formula. It gave them the confidence to do it again. And this time they set their eyes on the small world of insects, bugs and other crawly creatures. A Bug's Life was officially in production. Pixar founder Steve Jobs was wary of this moment in the company's history. He knows first hand the challenges that a company faces with their second product. His Apple 2 computer changed the world...the Apple 3? Not so much.

The worry was that Pixar had caught lightning in a bottle and people were wondering if they could do it again. Luckily they learned from the success of Toy Story. They gained a new education they could only receive from experience. They had developed two mantras that gave people some peace as they ramped up production for A Bug's Life.

  1. Story is King - no amount of witty dialogue, famous voices, or fancy computer animation would trump a great story. Since Pixar debuted, plenty of other companies have thrown their hat into the computer animated ring...but with little success. They often don't tell good stories.

  2. Trust the Process - the CEO of Disney, Roy Disney, was worried that Toy Story was going to flop because 98% of the way through production it looked like a jumbled mess. Somehow the final 2% was when everything just came together. It reminded people to trust the process and things will work out. That sounds like a classroom to me!

They leaned on these mantras to another huge success! A Bug's Life was the year's highest grossing animated film.

School is difficult. It just is. Despite these new found Pixar Mantras, teachers must remember that even if they feel lost at school it doesn't mean that everything is going wrong. I know when I was in the classroom I would have days in which 98% of my students were on task, polite and hit their objectives. But it was always the 2% who didn't that kept me up at night.

School leaders do that as well. They have the tendency to obsess over that 2%. Perhaps that is a good thing. I think it is simply a part of an educator's DNA. We teach for ALL of our students and that obsession makes sure that we don't leave anyone behind. Unfortunately that obsession comes at a price.

I remember during my first couple of years of teaching, I suffered from that obsession quite a bit. I looked around for answers to reach my struggling students. These are the students who weren't excelling academically, behaviorally or those whom I simply wasn't connecting with. I took everything personally. If a student didn't do their homework it was because they didn't care about my class. If they misbehaved it was because they didn't respect me as a human being. I often felt...attacked.

I was blessed and cursed by having amazing, veteran teachers on either side of my classroom. It wasn't tough to see how great and flawless these two women were. They had their classes on point, under control and were taking care of business. I would go to grad school at night and would be blown away by some of the stories that I was hearing from my classmates. I would wish that my class was more like theirs. So like many teachers I suffered from comparison fatigue. I tried to copy many of their strategies thinking that they would work in my classroom.

But it doesn't always work out that way. The common factor of what didn't work And that was a difficult thing for me to come to grips with. But it wasn't time to panic just yet.

Because luckily, the solution was

As an education consultant who works with districts all over the country I see this dynamic play out quite a bit...

  1. Districts are well-intentioned

  2. Focus solely on what isn't working

  3. Start to panic

  4. Assign blame

  5. Make snap decisions

  6. Look outward for solutions

  7. Find the cheapest, quickest way possible

I always urge them before they go down this rabbit hole that they take a moment, breath and remember what made them successful in the first place. Perhaps look to the areas of your classroom, school or district that is healthy and analyze that as well. We have to remember to go back to the basics.

Disney came to Pixar with an exciting prospect. They wanted to make a sequel to Toy Story. Their original plan was to release a movie straight to video. That was the tried and true strategy that was very lucrative for other Disney titles. But Pixar feared that a straight to video release would immediately lower the standard that they were working so hard to establish. They urged Disney to make it a theatrical release. Disney wholeheartedly agreed.

But for the first time Pixar had multiple projects going on at the same time. The "A" team was finishing up on A Bug's Life, while the less experienced team was tasked with Toy Story 2.

John Lasseter was the creative heart and soul of Pixar at the time. He directed the first two films. He was exhausted after working around the clock for years on Toy Story and A Bug's Life. He needed a vacation. Before he left for his trip he provided the Toy Story 2 team with a story outline. This gave them great comfort. But as he was ready to embark on that vacation he got a call from his friends at Pixar.

"John, it's Toy Story 2, we need your help". Lasseter picked himself up off of the mat. He kissed his family and headed back to work. He took the movie into the viewing room and a few hours later emerged only to say, "this is a disaster."

The Pixar braintrust quickly realized that having mantras, strategies, and processes are only as good as the people who employ and internalize them.

(Check out John Lasseter discussing the challenges of making the sequel)

My problems at school weren't strategy problems. They were ME problems. Therefore hunting down and copying other people's strategies were never going to be the solution. For ME problems, I needed to find ME solutions. I realized that I had no identity as a teacher. I had no purpose, no just cause that was fueling what I was doing every single day. I needed to reflect on the teacher who I aspired to be, and remember what inspired me to be a teacher in the first place.

Our identity and our purpose as a school is that same fuel. I was working really hard but that perspiration only felt worth it if it was in the service to my purpose.

So the order matters quite a great deal. I thought I needed to work hard and eventually the inspiration would follow. But instead it is actually...

Lasseter took the team and they locked themselves into a room for an entire weekend in order to figure out what the problem was. John's outline was still present in the movie. But as it was, it felt hollow, predictable and lacked tension. The plot was that Woody would accidentally be sold at a yard sale to a collector who would send him to a museum in Japan.

The Pixar team thought that the technology would save them. They thought that their experience from the first two movies would as well. They trusted that they would eventually figure it out. They were wrong.

The problem was the story. It wasn't emotional. It had no heart. The script was simply a search and rescue mission for Woody. This may sound surprising to Pixar fans because everyone always seems to cry at their movies. You can thank Toy Story 2 for that because it gave Pixar the opportunity to discover what their purpose really was.

Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar wrote, "for the film to work, viewers would have to believe that the choice Woody was weighing...whether to return to a world where Andy will someday outgrow and discard him OR to remain in a place of security with no one to love him...was real."

To accomplish this, they needed to make both sides of the decision have advantages and disadvantages. They introduced a squeaky penguin named Wheezy. Wheezy had been discarded and was a symbol for what Woody's future may be if he chose to stay.

They also introduced a cowgirl named Jessie, who argues the other side of the debate. She was abandoned by her owner. Jessie understands the pain that comes with that abandonment. She would never want to go back to that dark place every again. By putting these two characters into the movie Woody is confronted by the film's emotional question:

Would you choose to live forever without love?

When you can feel the agony of that choice you have a movie. That's why Pixar made the courageous decision to include this Sarah McLaughlin song with Jessie's montage.

It is a six-minute scene and Disney was a afraid children wouldn't want to sit through it. But the gamble paid off and it ripped everyone's hearts wide open. This moment is the purpose of Pixar. It defined who they were. These are not cartoons. They are real and they are alive. They have feelings just like us. And those are the stories that they needed to tell.

Tim Allen and Tom Hanks have said on many occasions how this moment brought them both to ugly tears.

Toy Story 2 was Pixar's third consecutive monster hit. Toy Story 2 jumped into that elite group of sequels that lived up to its predecessor. This saga has given Pixar the fuel needed to become one of the most respected companies in Hollywood. They have won 16 Oscars, 10 Golden Globes, and 11 Grammy Awards (more since this was written).

What are your school's strengths? What is your unifying cause? What is the good that you want your students to do in the world? These answers will help govern many of the decisions that you have to make every day. From seating charts to lesson plans to which email to respond to first it will give your school a direction, your pedagogy a purpose, and you all may even start to smile while you do it.

If you would like to learn more about the Pixar Story, I suggest checking out the book Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull, the President of Pixar and Disney Animation.


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