Derrick Tanner's enthusiasm is infectious.
Tanner, a roving building maintenance engineer who works at schools across the Cherry Creek School District, is effusive and energetic. He sports a constant smile, and he's apt to greet students, teachers and staff members alike with high-fives and kind words.
"My personality is joy, every day," Tanner said. "When I wake up, I wake up with joy. When I go to bed, I go to bed with joy."
For more than a year, Tanner has counted on that sense of celebration to impart a sense of decorum to students across the district. In order to encourage students at elementary schools to enjoy their lunch hour with a sense of structure and order, Tanner developed a system called "Eat Neat." The program consists of four simple rules for kids who are sitting down to eat their meals: no feet or knees on the sitting benches, no standing or horseplay while eating, eating over one's plate and using basic manners like saying 'please' and 'thank you.'
They may seem like simple precepts, but Tanner saw a need for reinforcing these rules as he visited elementary schools across CCSD.
"I just came up with the four simple rules and started applying them," Tanner said. "I noticed that 90 percent of the kids want to be able to be social and be neat; they're growing up, they're away from home."
Tanner started working with teachers, staff and principals to spread the message, and it's caught on. At Sunrise, Willow Creek, Mountain Vista and a number of other elementary schools, students are paying attention to their behavior during meal time. Tanner works with students to designate group leaders, kids who act in a guiding role for their peers.
Giving the students a stake in the program has had benefits beyond simple table manners, Tanner said; it's instilled an early sense of ownership and guidance.
"I talk to the leaders 10 minutes before the end of lunch, and I say, 'Since you're sitting with your friends, you need to be able to tell them that if they're not eating neat, they're going to have to clean up," Tanner said. "As a table, they're a team."
That spirit has had a noticeable effect. According to Toby Arritola, principal at Mountain Vista Elementary, the Eat Neat system has encouraged students to be on their best behavior during meals. In lieu of lectures and discipline, the Eat Neat encourages participation and investment. Students feel engaged in their school beyond the classroom, and the cafeteria has taken on the feel of a community center.
"It's been beneficial to our cafeteria, it's helped our building engineer a ton, keeping the cafeteria clean. It's helped kids focus on eating – to make sure they get the nutrition they need to learn," Arritola said. "It teaches them the ownership value. This is their school, they have to take ownership of it. The Eat Neat program helps us keep their cafeteria clean and a place they want to be."
Tanner works hard to spread that sense of ownership to students of all ages. When he's communicating with younger kids, he encourages them to take the Eat Neat lessons home and share them with their parents. He tells fourth- and fifth-graders that they have the opportunity to be role models for younger students, and talks about the importance of proper behavior as they start to think about heading to middle school.
Tanner's already thought of ways to tailor the message to middle school students. Indeed, he has grand ambitions for his four simple rules; he has a three-year plan to make the system a standard practice for even more students.
"I'm willing to go out and talk to people about this," Tanner said. "We need to put some structure in the cafeteria. Being structured is great – it's important to be organized and respectful to the next person."