Posted by Paul Barnwell on Monday, 08/07/2017
Recently, I opened some old documents on my aging desktop computer as I worked to declutter and purge files. One item immediately caught my eye. I opened the file, my pulse increasing as I scanned the text. I knew this one contained a time bomb of raw material that I wrote during my first year of teaching. Here’s an excerpt:
I have thick skin, but after a few moments, I wanted to lock myself out of the room. Let them try and break in my cabinets, stab each other through the cheek with pencils, roll joints—whatever the !$%! they were going to do. I checked my pulse—heart racing—and turned my back for a few moments and took deep breaths. Losing faith in humanity. These guys don’t even know me and they’re taking aim like a firing squad, me pinned to the front of the room and trying to deflect the verbal barrage. I know my face was turning a deep crimson. But I didn’t throw any desks, nor scream. I wanted to cry. They wanted me to cry. I didn’t cry.
At times, it’s still tough for me to relive my first year of teaching. It was traumatic, and before I gained any expertise and comfort in the classroom, the story I told myself was that I was a victim. Even though the stories I told myself didn’t seem empowering at the time, if felt cathartic as I stayed afloat in an untenable situation.
Today I find myself moving on from teaching, at least temporarily. Not sure for how long, but I’ve realized that after 13 years of telling stories and writing about the profession--to myself, for friends and family, for colleagues, and then larger audiences—I have evolved as an educator and storyteller. Why I write and how I might reach an audience have transformed. And as someone long interested in the writing craft and processing the myriad poignant experiences in the classroom, I’m recognizing my own journey as a storyteller. My hope is that these insights prove useful to you in various stages of your teacher and storyteller journey.
Phase one: Stories and raw emotions
For many educators, the emotion of the job can be overwhelming. I know it was for me. Like the example above, I have pages and pages of writing that capture the intensity of my first few years in the classroom: The highs of “ah ha” moments when a student asked an insightful question or discovered a passion for learning about an issue in the community. The lows of being berated by a parent over the phone, ears burning, or having combative students seek to push every button imaginable. And everything in between.
But there’s healing power in processing our experiences, even if we are only telling stories to ourselves or learning to see ourselves in a new light. Elizabeth Svoboda writes that the stories we tell ourselves are “integral to our well-being” and serve as “agents of personal transformation.” This is true for me, and as an English teacher, I witnessed this time and time again when I invited students to write narratives and poetry about personal experience.
Phase two: Going public with pedagogy
Somewhere during my third or fourth year in the classroom I thought that, just maybe, I had enough experience and insight to attempt sharing with a larger audience. I was no longer drowning in the traumatic environment of my first job. I had time to teach, think, reflect, and write from a perspective that had evolved. I was ready to challenge the status quo. My own storytelling goals were shifting as I began to confront broader issues. Why do we use traditional grades? What’s the purpose of homework when only the kids from stable households seem to complete it?
When I decided to submit this piece to Education Week, it was nerve wracking. After all, challenging traditional grading practices flew counter to the narrative many of my colleagues told themselves about how students are motivated. But for me, I felt it was important to analyze and share what was happening in the classroom.
Phase three: Dabbling in multimodal storytelling
After eight years in the classroom, my storytelling strategy shifted once again after launching my blog Mindful Stew. This space provided an outlet for rumination and storytelling that stretched beyond teaching, exploring how technology and culture intersect with educators’ and students’ lives. Mindful Stew also challenged me to incorporate images, video, and audio into telling stories. Digital media is a crucial aspect of modern storytelling and forced me out of my comfort zone. In this blog, I used student portraits to tell a story about diversity and curriculum. In this post, I attempted to integrate students’ audio recordings about their perspective of school.
What I’ve learned through blogging on Mindful Stew and also with CTQ is that we don’t have to constrain ourselves to one form or medium when we seek to entertain, enlighten, and teach through our stories. We also shouldn’t worry about completing perfectly polished ideas and paragraphs before sharing them.
Phase four: Selective storytelling
One of my anxieties—and probably a similar hesitation for many others who put their ideas out there—is that there’s already an abundance of great writers and ideas circulating. All it takes is a five-minute scroll of a well-curated Twitter feed to encounter dozens of thoughtful pieces about teaching and learning. How and why could my story possibly be worth reading among so much worthwhile material? Over the years, I’ve told a lot of stories, penned arguments, and advocated for the teaching profession in various ways.
I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like my tank is empty of worthwhile or fresh ideas.
So I wait for lightbulb moments. I try to have a notebook accessible to jot down insights or sometimes record voice memos to myself lest I forget what I’ve seen, read, or heard. And then, if I’m feeling inspired, I’ll get back to the process. By this point in my evolution, utilizing storytelling methods from all phases of my writing journey are in the playbook.
Our journeys as storytellers and educators are as unique as we are. As I transition, I’m going to miss the rich experience of being a classroom teacher. The opportunity to learn with and from students is never-ending, a constant source of material to process and potentially share with the world. And I look forward to continuing reading wise and affecting words from educators who embrace the calling to thoughtfully tell stories about their classrooms and beyond.
Paul's post is part of CTQ's July/August blogging roundtable on the power of story. Join the discussion by commenting on this blog and checking out the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted and use #CTQCollab to chime in on social media.