Put Joy Back into our Schools

On August 13, 2019, I, with a few friends and colleagues, attended a day of learning at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, MI with eighty participants. The day was called ‘Back to School the Menlo Way.’ This is the fourth time I have traveled to Ann Arbor to learn with Richard Sheridan who wrote Joy, Inc. and Chief Joy Officer. Notes on Joy, Inc. are already posted in ‘What We are Reading’ at www.learningomnivores.com. I highly recommend both books.

As I wrote in a previous rule, Choose a New Shore, this is exactly what the Menlo applications to schools are offering. The following are a few of my notes to consider in reaching a new shore, thinking and doing things differently, and engaging our young people and our staff in new and exciting ways.

Menlo’s mission statement is ‘to end human suffering caused by technology.’ Hmmm. Maybe we could have a mission statement in schools to end human suffering by ‘sit and git.’ Engagement, motivation by passion, and facilitating the student talents might get us to a different shore with more self-advocacy skills.

Two resources I strongly suggest, for those who are interested, are Ted Dintersmith’s (2018) book What School Could Be. I know I keep mentioning it. There are many examples in schools that are working. Another resource is Corey Mohn at the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS). The school is in the Blue Valley School District (Overland Park, KS) and is an amazing learning environment. They have a consortium of several schools in several states using some of the processes learned from Menlo. Contact Corey at cmohn@bluevalleyk12.org.

Rich quoted Rollo May and I paraphrase, the opposite of courage is conformity. Conformity is going to the same shore. Question – is conformity getting us to where we need to be? Will that get our students prepared for what they will need in the year 2030 and beyond?

SHeridan says, RUN THE EXPERIMENT. Have the courage to try something. This is what I say in workshops when asked what I learned in forty years: IF IT ISN’T WORKING, TRY SOMETHING ELSE. I honestly think that is the answer. I know W. Edwards Deming many years ago said, you are getting 100% of the results aligned with what you are designed to do. Sheridan quoted from a book (no I haven’t read it) Vital Smarts, “The world is perfectly organized to create the world you are complaining about.” So, you want something different, design it.

Change the design if you want something different. Quit beating up people. I also believe that your real value is determined by how quickly you can help others learn what you are really good at. Help the students ‘learn to learn.’ That skill will carry them for a lifetime.

As you think about a business, school, or community agency, Peter Senge has a great quote. “In the long run, the only sustainable source of competitive advantage is your organization’s ability to learn faster than your competition.” So, what are you waiting for? How do we accelerate the learning of humans that will produce better learning in the organization? Teachers are hungry for the right kind of environment to do their best teaching, facilitating, and modeling learning. As Drucker said years ago, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

A metaphor Rich shared with us involves an airplane. Rich is a pilot. I liked this analogy because I was a physics major in college, so it made sense to me. Think of an airplane and the four forces that are relative to taking off and while in flight.

Above is LIFT
Think about it as human energy, clarity, dealing with meaningful things

DRAG – holding it back, fear, micromanaging THRUST – purpose, focus, learning

Bureaucracy, meetings, no decisions being made

TAKEOFF – as you are rolling down the runway the pilot pulls back on the controls. This is called ‘positive attitude.’ I didn’t know about positive attitude. Very cool. Thanks Rich.

Let’s increase thrust and lift and reduce the drag and weight.

Because Menlo relies on communication and collaboration, they have to have systems that encourage learning from each other. The 10:00 am meeting is the best PLC I have ever seen. There are many processes explained in his two books. Read about their great hiring process. The first thing they want to know is, ‘Do people play well with others?’ Yes, we do learn that in kindergarten. Sometimes we lose that as we move through the educational system and life.

When you read Chief Joy Officer you will find the statement, LEADERS ARE READERS. I remember my friend and colleague Jennifer York-Barr said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to lead.” Reading or coaching can provide options for the complex problems we face. As Rich and Edgar Schein continue to ask, ‘what problem are you trying to solve?’ Once there is clarity about the problem we can shift to create multiple pathways to solve some of the problems.

I am grateful for Richard Sheridan who provided an opportunity for over forty educators to learn some new processes that could be applicable to schools. I am grateful for the other participants so I could learn from them. Finally, I am grateful for my friends who attended with me, Skip, Joellen, Bondo, and Jennifer. Our picture was posted on twitter Tuesday.

Happy Learning


Dintersmith, Ted. (2018). What School Could Be. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.

Sheridan, Richard. (2013). Joy, Inc. New York: Penguin

Sheridan, Richard. (2018). Chief Joy Officer. New York: Portfolio/Penguin