8 Lessons every educator can learn from Disney’s Moana

Friends.  I can’t even with all the feels right now.  I took my sweet babies to see Moana yesterday.  I had no idea how this movie would speak to me.  I swear to you I want to hug the writers, hug Disney, hug all the people and say thank you.  Dare I say Moana is my new favorite Disney “princess” movie (if it even fits into that category…)?  I cried big crocodile tears during multiple parts and I was so proud to sit between my two children as they watched such a great movie with a strong, powerful message.  Major props, Disney, I salute you.

**Warning…this post contains spoilers so read with caution!**

To introduce my lessons I think every educator can learn from this movie I want to start with a brief synopsis.  Many of you will probably walk away from this blog post thinking I’ve lost my mind for reading so far into a kids movie but I don’t think I’m way off base, to be completely honest.  Disney has a long tradition of strong messages buried into their cute songs and kid friendly animations.  I don’t think the messages were any coincidence.

Before our main characters are introduced we are told of the legends of the demigod “Maui” who stole the heart of Te Fiti, an island goddess, in the form of a small pounamu stone which contained the power to create life.  Maui stole the heart to give it as a gift to humanity.  The lava demon Te Ka confronted Maui, struck him down and the heart was lost in the ocean forever, along with Maui’s magical fish hook.  A thousand years later…enter Moana.  Moana is the adorable daughter of the chief of a Polynesian island called Motunui.  The Chief is desperate to keep his people, especially his daughter Moana, safely on the island and forbids travel beyond the reef.  Moana is drawn to the ocean throughout her entire childhood.  The ocean “chose her” to receive the heart and restore it.  For most of Moana’s childhood she is trying to find her place as the next Chief.  The ocean continues to call to her despite her efforts.  Her grandmother, Tala, plays an important role in her life and secretly encourages her to find out “who she is inside”.  After realizing their beloved island is being consumed by Maui’s curse of darkness, Tala leads Moana to a secret cave where Moana realizes her people were once wayfinding voyagers.  After Tala’s sudden death, Moana sets out to find Maui to restore the heart of Te Fiti.  Her journey is filled with trials and tribulations and a ton of lessons from which we can all learn.

1. We are all chosen.

Are you a teacher? You are chosen.  This field chose us.  I don’t have a cute story on how I became I teacher.  Moana’s story resonates with me, truly.  I chose education as a major because it was the only option I had to finish college in four years.  Heart warming, right?  My first year I realized that teaching was exactly where I was supposed to be.  It was like my college advisor was Moana’s ocean, grabbing me by the collar saying ‘listen – wake up – this is what you’re supposed to do.’  My point is that being a teacher ain’t easy, ya’ll.  The good days and the bad days we have to remember that we were chosen.  We are meant to be exactly where we are…helping, encouraging, teaching, mentoring, loving.

2. If you feel ‘different’ then maybe it’s worth exploring.

Moana tries really hard to fit the mold her parents created for her.  She puts on her headdress and goes through the motions.  Oh my gosh – you get it now don’t you?!  How many of us have felt this way as an educator?  We put on our metaphorical headdress (standardized testing, teacher evaluations…you feel me now, right?!) and go through the motions all while KNOWING…FEELING there is something else out there for us.  We are convincing ourself that we’re happy, that we’ve got a good job, that our students are great, our principal is great…but there is this dull ache inside our hearts that makes us feel different.  Why won’t that go away?!  Moana knows she is different and ultimately embraces it by the end of the movie.  When I realized that MY dull ache was technology, I found real, true professional fulfillment.  I loved teaching history, then geography…the teams and teachers I worked with were nothing short of amazing.  I am beyond grateful for each and everyone of them.  But I knew in my heart there was something missing, something that made me feel different.  It wasn’t until I met people (James, Donnie, Heather, Mike) who challenged me and pushed me daily to explore that ‘thing’ inside me that I realized the ache inside my heart was actually my calling.

3. Find your people.

Moana had been drawn to the ocean her whole life.  She never knew why.  She tried to repress it but it wouldn’t go away.  Tala led her to a cave filled with canoes and she realized her ancestors were wayfinding voyagers.  This moment made me cry in the movie.  I am so serious.  The musical scene here is so powerful.  It perfectly demonstrated the importance of “finding your people.”  Moana had felt different her whole life and had constantly been around people who told her to stay put.  These people weren’t trying to hurt her, they were looking out for her but she knew she was destined for something else…maybe even something greater.  Even though the people from this scene are gone, they give Moana power and confidence.  She knows her destiny and she believes in it.  As educators it is so crucial for us to “find our tribe.”  We must find those who breathe life into us and fill us with joy.  The people who give us power and confidence to go forward, just like Moana’s ancestors did for her.  For me, those people came in the form of unknown Twitter educators on #KyEdChat early 2014.  I met them face to face at KySTE a few months later and they’ve been my best friends ever since.  They are the people I go to for honest advice, the people I trust more than anyone and my favorite people with which to celebrate.  They have given me the power and the confidence to go forward in whatever I set my heart to.

4. Move forward and learn new things along the way.

Once Moana set sails, with the blessing of her mother (what a tearjerker moment), she realizes she doesn’t have a clue how to actually sail.  Bless her.  I love this so much it honest-to-goodness makes my heart hurt.  As teachers, we get so caught up being the “expert” that we think we must master a skill before doing something with our students.  Friends, this is not the case.  Granted, it’s a cartoon, but Moana does just fine on the wide open ocean with zero experience sailing.  (She’s got her tribe behind her, right?)  You will too.  Some of the best, most powerful, most celebrated moments in my ENTIRE teaching career came from experiences where I was not the expert but rather the “lead learner” in my classroom.  Now please don’t get me wrong I am not encouraging a social studies teacher to go teach AP calculus here.  All I’m saying is that risk-taking in the classroom is a healthy thing for everyone. Take the leap, be transparent with your students and don’t be afraid to learn a few things along the way.  This is how I discovered my passion for computer science.  If you, for one second, think I could write a program or even correctly interpret a line of code before we started actually coding in my classroom, you are sadly mistaken.  We all learned together.  I even had some students teaching me.  (Special mention to Robert Sego & Spencer Yates for all those times I called you out of another class to come and help us figure something out.)  I fell in love with it and was determined to ‘become’ an expert.

5.  Fail fast, fail often…and maybe don’t take no for an answer.

Moana was determined to become a wayfinder.  When Maui refused to teach her, the ocean lent a hand and forced him into a ‘position’ where he had to help.  Moana stumbled along the way.  Quite a bit actually. Before she set sail on her journey, she had a not so pleasant encounter with the ocean beyond the reef where she was washed ashore, battered and beaten.  Although her pride was hurt, it ultimately did not stop her voyage.  When we take risks in the classroom …newsflash.  It isn’t going to be all roses and Twitter celebrations.  It could get ugly.  You might even find yourself caught in a typhoon and get knocked unconscious on a island you don’t recognize.  Remind me to tell you stories of some of the many crash and burns I’ve had in front of 36 fourteen year olds.  Super fun times.  I have felt battered and beaten after a lesson gone wrong more times than I care to count.  Getting back up, dusting yourself off and realizing that (See #1) we are chosen and we have a purpose is key in this game of life called teaching.

6. Find your person and then be a person.

Ya’ll.  Tala, the grandmother, is my JAM.  She is coined as “the village crazy lady.” (I can relate here.  I’ve been called “the crazy Google lady” in more than one publication. LOL.)  Tala encourages Moana her entire life.  She knows the ocean has chosen Moana and she recognizes that Moana is different and special.  Everyone needs an encourager.  Everyone needs a person in their lives that they know will always have their back.  As educators, we really, really need that person.  My first year teaching, Amanda was that person for me.  She was my grade-level content partner.  We worked in the Teaching American History grant together, have countless inside jokes (Houston, we have a problem) but also fought over library reservations a time or two.  At the end of the day, Amanda was my person who I dissected lessons with and created special experiences for our students.  We celebrated success and figured out failure together.  She taught me the importance of having a person.  When I moved schools, Liz became my person.  She co-taught social studies with me and was right beside me the entire time I implemented a 1:1 iPad classroom for the first time in the district.  She was the one who brought me water when my lessons crashed and burned and went up in flames and invited me to happy hour when she knew I needed to recharge.  When I moved to a different content area and really began to find my true teaching self, James and Donnie became my person(s).  This was different for me because they was several hours away and we didn’t teach in the same school.  They are some of the most brilliant people I know.  I joke with them all the time that I feel like someone, someday is going to figure me out in that all my good ideas actually come from them. Ha!  There is honestly not a week that goes by that I don’t ask for their help or advice on a project for work.  It always makes me nervous sending them a link to something I’ve done because they are so honest.  Those are the kind of people you need.  The ones that push you and make you grow.  Recently, I’ve been blessed with another person.  I met Alison two years ago when I started working at the district level.  We quickly realized we are literally the same person in two different bodies and to put it simply, I couldn’t do life without her.  Honestly I’ve met so many amazing people that it would be impossible to list them all here.  These people,though, they are all my ‘Tala’s.’  They are always with me, always encouraging me and pushing me to follow my heart.

Once you realize the importance of having your ‘Tala’ I think you absolutely must BE a ‘Tala’ to someone else.  I am blessed with amazing bosses.  They have literally redefined my interpretation of ‘boss.’ Several years ago I met Mark when he worked for our Kentucky Department of Education as a Social Studies consultant.  When he came to work in our district a few years later, I could not have been more thrilled.  I knew that he believed in me even when I did not believe in myself.  He was constantly throwing opportunities in my lap and telling me to run with them.  I didn’t know where I was running but I took off, sometimes running in circles.  He didn’t tell me where to go but cheered for me on the sidelines and frequently ran alongside me.  EVERYONE deserves a ‘Tala’ like Mark.  When we started the #HCSInnovate Teacher Fellowship program, being someone’s ‘Tala’ was my ultimate goal.  I had no idea the direction this program would go, all I knew is that I wanted to be an encourager, an inspirer and a fire-starter for someone else.  The people I mentioned above have literally changed the course of my life, just like Tala did for Moana.  I want to do that for other people.  I want to get to know them, love them, champion them, support them, encourage them and help guide them to their purpose.

7. Open your eyes and pay attention to who people really are.

This one – bring on the tissues.  So Moana’s ultimate goal is to restore the heart of Te Fiti.  Once she finally gets past Ta Ka and the fire balls (whew) she had the ultimate realization.  The ocean parts and Moana starts singing and walking to the fire demon.  The whole time you’re freaking out…”what is SHE doing?! Moana go back! Fire demon is CREEPY!”  Then before you realize she is nose to nose with Te Ka.  Maui is freaking out too.  She restores the heart and you finally realize that Te Ka WAS Te Fiti and when Maui stole the heart she became something she actually wasn’t.  Lawwwwww.  Moana.  Can I crawl into the screen and hug you?! How often do we get distracted by those death ball throwing, fire demons of students in our classroom?  Is it inappropriate to refer to students as fire demons? I’m not sure. If the shoe fits I guess…anyway I digress.  Once Moana restores Te Ka/Te Fiti’s heart, she turns into the island goddess she really is.  Friendssssssssss.  I have had a few instances in my career that I can honestly say I was able to witness the fruits of our labor.  However, I am not claiming the victory here.  This was the labor of teachers and mentors of these particular students over the course of many years.  I just so happened to be blessed enough to witness the transformation from Te Ka to Te Fiti.  I cry every single time I tell their story.  Often times it comes in the form of angry students who act out.  Sometimes it is the students who figuratively (maybe even literally) throw balls of fire at our heads.  In these moments, I encourage you to find your inner Moana and embrace it.  When Moana was trying to find her way past the barrier islands (Te Ka’s fire balls had previously blocked Moana and Maui and pretty much anyone else from crossing).  Moana had to look at the situation from a new perspective (that could be an entirely different lesson right there) and find a way in.  Teachers?! Every day we go to work we need to be seeking a way in to reach these students…to find a way in just like Moana.  It may take a crazy round about way, it may involve standing on your desk or rapping about geography.  Who knows?  And here is the thing you have to remember.  Maui, the demigod (super buff, super demigod and all) could not get past Te Ka.  When our colleagues label a student as unreachable or a lost cause…do not listen.  You do not need muscles or a magical fish hook.  You need your determination and a new perspective.  You can do it.  Do not give up.  The inner island goddess just might be waiting for a teacher like you to restore their heart.

8. Change is good (maybe messy)…but be an agent of it anyway.

So flash forward to the end of the movie.  Moana returns home and you guessed it.  She leads her people back to their roots as wayfinding voyagers.  COLDCHILLS.  Moana had a dangerous, turbulent journey ya’ll.  She was bruised, kicked around and lost in a typhoon for Pete’s sake.  This change that Moana brought to her people did not come easily.  It was not a walk in the park.  It was messy and she probably has the cartoon scars to prove it.  Was it worth it?!  I don’t know, ask the smiling faces, dancing people and happy finale score in the movie. I’m guessing so.  Remember your purpose.  Remember this is your calling. Be determined and have courage.  You don’t have to be an expert, you don’t even really have to know where you’re going.  Listen to your heart, figure out who you are and be an agent of change for all the students with which you are charged.  Need help?  Call me and I’ll be your ‘Tala.’ 😉


Have you seen Moana? Did something speak to you that I left off?  Drop me a line in the comments! I’d love to hear your interpretation of this great movie!



4 thoughts on “8 Lessons every educator can learn from Disney’s Moana

  1. Brooke, thank you for writing this period after the week I had last week you are so right on every point you made. We need to make changes as teachers and sometimes it’s messy. It might not work the first time or the second hell I might even not even work the third time but we have to keep trying for our students. Many teachers are stagnated and resist change when they are teaching for years, this is when they need to remember why they became a teacher and get out of their comfort box. We can learn a lot even from the most difficult student and when they learn it’s the biggest reward a teacher can achieve.

  2. Absolutely loved reading this. My heart was leaping. This is how I feel with my new transition to P.L.T.W. I had been praying for 2 years and finally God answered. I always taught 110% but all the negativity from peers and test driven data was becoming too much. I am a happy go lucky person but even I can only take so much. Now that I’ve moved locations and I’m teaching Pre-Engineering, I’ve rediscovered my long lost passion. I love what I’m doing and I can’t get enough. I enjoy my kids more than ever and it’s been an awesome experience so far. I am HAPPY. I think I may show it too much and not every one understands why I’m always enthusiastic about teaching. I’m sure they probably consider me crazy. It’s okay. I just smile and know that something powerful is still yet to come. I’m ready to accept whatever it is.

    Although, I never see you around very much anymore, I relate to you most. Thanks for taking the time to write this. You GET it!

    I shared with my daughter who is struggling with finishing her teaching degree. She is meant to be an teacher. Her personality is for all the little kids. Unfortunately, It’s all the hoops that make you want to walk away. Keeping the focus on what’s most important is hardest of all – doing what you’re meant to do and doing it for all the right reasons. Best part of my new move is rejuvenation and a complete fulfillment. Can’t wait to watch this movie. Thank You Brooke! You are Amazing!

    1. Awh this gave me cold chills Susan! I do get it and I knew you’d find your way to this. I never doubted it for a second. I always **thought** I was happy and “fulfilled” (whatever that meant) until I actually was. I think as a general rule you haven’t found your calling until you’re completely obnoxious to be around. 😂😂❤️❤️ love you girl and I’m so proud and excited of/for you!!!

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