3 Lessons Teachers Can Learn From Vegas

By Dave Levin, KIPP Co-Founder

I started teaching in August of 1992. I struggled mightily and failed daily. At the end of many of those early days, I wasn’t sure how I could muster the energy for the next day. All that changed in October, when Harriett Ball, one of the greatest teachers I’ve ever known, agreed to be my mentor. She saved my career and changed the course of my life. Thanks to Harriett I learned how to teach.

Harriett believed in real-time coaching. She would make suggestions to me in real-time in the middle of my lessons about how I could better approach an academic concept or disciplinary matter. And, she’d expect me to implement it immediately. Sometimes she’d model a concept and make me re-do it right after she did it. Almost every afternoon we’d debrief the day and preview the next one. I loved it and it accelerated my learning curve exponentially. I’ll write more about Harriett and real-time coaching in a future post. Today I wanted to share one of the greatest lessons I learned from one of the worst mentors I ever had.

Before meeting Harriett, the district randomly assigned me a mentor who for the sake of this post, we’ll refer to as Ms. Smith. We met only once at the end of September, six weeks into my teaching career. After watching me teach for 20 minutes she shared two pieces of advice – first, she thought I should consider finding a different career, one in which I would be more likely to find success. Secondly, she shared that in the meantime, I should clean up my classroom, keep everything in the room neat and straight, and make my bulletin boards look celebratory.

I was shocked. Didn’t Ms. Smith just watch the horrible lesson I taught? Didn’t she see the fact that only 2 of my 30 kids were on-task? Yes, she had. She explained to me that while she was doubtful I would ever be ever to handle thirty sixth-graders, she did believe I could clean. Then Ms. Smith walked out.

At that time in my career, without the perspective of more than 20 years teaching, I was crushed. Then it dawned on me – while I knew she was wrong about my career, she was right about cleanliness – and it was a remarkably deep and important point.

As teachers there are many aspects of our job that are beyond our control. That being said, one thing that is not beyond our control is what we do with our physical space, even if we have no control over the space in which we are assigned to teach.

Interestingly enough, cleaning up my classroom and posting graded student work every Monday on the bulletin board was the first step toward the success I had for the remainder of the year. It subtly and powerfully communicated a set of high expectations to my students. I’ll never forget watching with a smile as the kids watched me cleaning up my desk and straightening up my papers and then started doing the same. As Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Every action reveals us.” If excellence is the bar, then it is the bar in all things.

This last sentence was what Susan, one of the managers of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, told me when she gave me a tour of their casino on Halloween a few years ago. She explained to me that the basic idea is from the moment you step through the front door of a Vegas casino everything is designed toward one simple goal: to get people to spend money. In other words, casino operators have become incredibly effective at creating a “culture” that achieves their goals. Susan put it this way, “We’re constantly asking ourselves this question – from the minute a guest pulls up to ‘the Rock’ is everything about our hotel helping our guests have the best possible experience?”

I learned a ton from her. Here are just a few of the questions she fired at me:

Did you notice how clean the carpet, halls, and rooms are? (They clean their casino twice as often as the rest. Susan kept telling me, I’d eat our sushi off these floors.)

Did you notice how we have different types of games spread throughout the casino so people are never far from a game they want to play?

Did you notice that everywhere you looked, you knew you were at the Hard Rock (guitars and music memorabilia were everywhere – the casino cashier wasn’t labeled cashier like the rest of the casinos but rather the Bank of Hard Rock, In Rock we Trust)

Did you notice we’re always playing awesome music (most casinos don’t) and vary the loudness of the music (she explained that changes in volume get noticed more than a constant tone – interestingly enough a point also made in Stumbling on Happiness)?

Did you notice the way in which everyone was greeted? (“Welcome to the Hard Rock, please let me know if there is anything we can do to help you have the best stay you’ve ever had?”)

Did you notice the huge sign that reads “Take the time to be kind.”

Susan reminded me of the lesson I learned about physical space from Ms. Smith in September 1992. It has nothing to do with physical space. It is all about the intentionality and expectations of excellence we bring to each aspect of teaching.

My time at the Hard Rock convinced me that there are at least three lessons teachers can learn from a Las Vegas casino:

1. Every aspect of our classrooms, including the physical space and bulletin boards, should be intentional and help our students develop the character and academic skills they are going to need in their lives.

2. Our classrooms, including the physical space and bulletin boards, need to be set up to differentiate for the interests and talents of all of our kids.

3. Keeping a space neat and organized should be a source of joy and pride for all.

These lessons are captured in three references to physical space in the KIPP Framework for Excellent Teaching (KFET), including a behavior known as “Their Happy Place” which asks teachers to “Design the physical space to make it inviting, purposeful, and a reflection of the students in the room.”

In the style of the Hard Rock manager, here are some questions we could ask ourselves about our physical space:

Are we maximizing the ways in which our physical space (classrooms, bulletin boards, hallways, etc…) helps us teach academics and character?

Is every part of our classroom really neat and organized (student desks, our desk, the bookcases, the floor, the areas around the garbage, etc…)?

Are our bulletin boards neat, organized, colorful and fun?

Are we using our bulletin boards to appreciate the beauty and excellence of student achievement, effort, and growth? Is the work up-to-date (i.e., within the last two weeks)?

Is there something that excites every kid about walking into our classrooms?

Our physical space sends a powerful non-verbal message to kids of all ages and their parents. What is it saying right now? Could it say more? Could it say it differently? Better? I am reminded of a quote: “Countless unseen details often separate the mediocre from the magnificent.”

There may be a lot about Las Vegas that as teachers we don’t want to emulate. Yet, the Hard Rock Manager’s relentlessness and single-minded focus are the same qualities possessed by great teachers. And as an added bonus, teachers who have the positive “Vegas” spirit in their classrooms tend to have a ton of fun with all aspects of the job of teaching.

A few follow-up notes on bulletin boards:

If you’re not sure about why it’s worth keeping up with the bulletin boards, just ask the kids if they like seeing their work on the bulletin boards when they do well. Even those kids who try to act too cool when you ask, watch their faces light up when they see their work on the bulletin board.

Don’t be shy – reward great work with big, bright colorful grades written in markers that can be easily seen. It’s a 1/12 (a small adjustment that has a huge impact) that makes a positive difference in the way kids and their parents view bulletin boards and posted work. It makes it more fun. Elementary schools have it right with their emphasis on brightness and color.

Bulletin boards can also be great places to highlight student writing as it evolves through various stages of the writing process. The possibilities are endless.

By the way, kids love to help put up the work. Once we show a crew of kids how to put the work up neatly, they’re set. It’s an easy place for students to feel ownership and investment. (Side note: if you feel that you don’t have work to put up on the board – this would be a good warning sign to think about the assignments and assessments that we are giving.)


To learn more about teaching at KIPP, click here >
To read more posts from Dave Levin, click here >



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