They came by the hundreds, creating a long, snaking line of visitors – a line so long that it wrapped around the front of the Castle and edged towards the main gates. Over 900 people waited in groups for more than an hour at a time, packed inside a hot, crowded dining hall, all to be frightened, thrilled, terrified and entertained at Trafalgar Castle School’s annual Haunted Castle. Finally, overwhelmed by the sheer size of the crowd, we closed the front gate and apologized to the visitors that continued to arrive throughout the evening. This was 2017 – the year we realized our success had created a demand larger than we were able to meet.
I must admit, it was a nice problem to have: So many people wanting to visit our Halloween event that we had to turn some away. And knowing that proceeds from tickets sales and the canned goods donated at the door go to support local community organizations – well, that just made the problem feel even nicer. But we knew we had to rethink the event in order to ensure that our guests’ experience reflected the thoughtful care and consideration we bring to everything we do at the Castle. And besides, our poor wee actors (all students) were screaming and howling for hours on end, and could have used a break.
Faced with a fun challenge, we did what we do so often and so well at the Castle: We put our heads together! (I always remind staff and students that “the smartest person in the room, is the room!” ) Together, a team came up with a complete overhaul of the Haunted Castle that included presold tickets, set times for guests to arrive, a mid-point break for the actors, and a streamlined path through the Castle. We set the number of guests at 600, thinking that was a manageable number to host.
So how did it go this year? Well, the event sold out online in under 24 hours and the evening went off without a hitch. We’re already planning for next year and believe that, with the changes we introduced, we can easily accommodate up to 1,000 guests. That’ll mean even more proceeds to our community organizations and more donations to the local food bank!
This morning as I walked through the Castle, picking up a few leftover decorations and errant bits of cobweb, I thought about how successful the event had been (and how well the students had cleaned up!) I particularly appreciated their clean-up efforts because on Sunday we were receiving a group of visitors from CAIS (Canadian Accredited Independent Schools). This year is our accreditation year, when a Visiting Committee made up of colleagues from member CAIS schools joins us for four-days. During this time, the Visiting Committee carefully looks at our school’s practice across a wide number of areas to ensure that we are upholding the standards and guidelines expected of every CAIS member school. The year prior to the accreditation visit is one of self-study and self-reflection as schools work on the writing of a lengthy report for the Visiting Committee.
It seemed appropriate to receive our guests following the Haunted Castle, because that event demonstrates, to me, something that’s important at our school – a commitment to ongoing improvement. I see every day how our school culture is collaborative and supportive, but also not afraid to admit when things don’t go well or simply need to improve. Every time we run an event, or any time we encounter a hiccup in the day-to-day, we get together to debrief and ask ourselves the simple question: “How can we become better?”
Lest this sound like a self-critical mindset, rest assured. We take great care to celebrate success and praise risk taking (even if the outcome sometimes falls short of the goal). Our girls (and I hope our staff) know how proud we are of their many accomplishments but realize that we are equally proud of the times they try courageously and fail. Our commitment to ongoing improvement stems from a school culture that values a growth mindset – the belief that we are not fixed in our ability to succeed, but that we can collectively and individually become better, smarter, wiser, more efficient, and more successful by showing resilience, persistence, and embracing challenges.
I think my belief in Trafalgar Castle’s collective growth mindset is why I’m so excited to receive our CAIS guests. I know they’ll point our areas for improvement – at least, I sure hope they do! That’s the value of critical friends, those colleagues with whom we can talk honestly about our strengths but also our areas of need, opening ourselves up to close inspection, and receiving feedback with an open mind and an eagerness to improve.
So whether it’s next year’s Haunted Castle or any other school event or happening, here’s to becoming better. Here’s to being open to feedback and listening carefully to the experience and valuable opinions of our community. And here’s to modelling for our girls how to create a future filled with success and a pride of personal achievement.
 This quote is attributed to David Weinberger, author of Too Big to Know.