Holding on and letting go: The power of story

What’s your story? This roundtable launch post explores why we hold onto our stories, the power of our individual and collective stories, and the need for educators to shed some humility in order to share compelling stories of impact to shift the narrative of public education.

What’s your story?

For the next two months CTQ’s blogging roundtable will focus on the power of stories: How stories impact our work within and beyond the classroom. I’m not sure there is any profession that creates more stories in a class period, day, or year than teaching.

But most stories go untold. The ones we do hear about generally land on one of two extremes: the unrealistic propping up of the superhero educator working 80+ hours a week or the reporting out of the suspect being accused of criminal behavior or extreme malpractice. The stories we hear often require either a cape or handcuffs to garner attention. These sensational accounts leave the general public with a skewed view of our country’s single largest profession.

Between these extremes are hundreds of thousands of stories, compelling and authentic ones. Stories that never get told. Why? We just don’t think to ask. Why? We think we know the stories. Why? We were all students so we carry our own stories of teachers, teaching, and school.

In his classic Schoolteacher (1975), sociologist Dan Lortie coined the term “apprenticeship of observation” to describe the thousands of hours we spend as students observing and evaluating professionals in action. He explored the hazy perception these hours generally lead most of us to hold about teachers and teaching. Teachers themselves often imitate how they were taught, not as they may have been instructed to teach in preparation programs. The lived experience of school is often too powerful to reframe based on a one-semester methods course.

We hold onto our stories.

I testified before legislative committees more than 20 times to advocate for funding for teacher salary increases, incentives for recruitment and retention, and recognition and reward for accomplished teaching. And almost without exception, at least one legislator would “go autobiographical” during the hearing by recalling a “Back in the day when I was in school…” tale to remind me of what teaching school is really like—seeming to forget or disregard that I had taught 13 years, an hour away from where we were meeting.

We hold onto our stories.
And that holding on is the biggest challenge teachers and their educator colleagues face in telling compelling stories of impact. On students and on themselves. We face an audience of former students who must revise their own stories to hear ours. An audience that must be open to un-learning what they “think” teaching is like, and to understanding what goes on beyond what they observed, experienced, and selectively remember.

Another challenge of sharing compelling stories is the inexperience of the teacher as public author. “Teacher as storyteller” in the classroom, to and for students, is common. Google that and thousands of resources surface on how to use story to inspire students to write and share. But how do educators use story to inspire those outside of classrooms and school buildings?

Teachers must shed some humility to fully realize their significance as key participants in stories.

Pennsylvania teacher and blogger Jake Miller wrote about How Humility is Hurting Teachers. I agree with some of what he shares; however, teachers need opportunities and support to learn how to get beyond Miller’s advice to “Continually wave a banner of the great things you do in your classroom.” And Paul Zak explains the science behind the brain’s chemical reactions to good storytelling in his post (humility not required) and posits that sharing compelling stories is “An effective way to communicate transcendent purpose…” (Harvard Business Review, 2014).

What about focusing on “waving banners” for what other educators are doing or what your school or district is doing as a collective?

That’s why CTQ’s suite of tools that focus on creating and sharing stories of impact represents some of the best work to come out of our small nonprofit. Stories that show evidence-based impact on student growth and teacher growth are complex and multifaceted. They aren’t impromptu anecdotes. They are driven by evidence, intentional outcomes, audience, and bold calls to action. They are driven by emotion and by heart.

And they are written by authors who don’t shy away from playing a significant role in their own stories, individually or as part of a team. How else can others truly learn about authentic teaching and collective leading?

Now, here’s where I usually hear pushback: “But what about the students? Any story from a teacher must be about students.” While I understand this perspective, it over-simplifies the premise of stories of impact we desperately need to elevate. I am not suggesting students are unimportant. They are indeed the most important characters to which any compelling storyline will eventually lead. However, in our desire to highlight the accomplishments of students, we often minimize the importance of the teacher as protagonist.

So during July and August, we look forward to hearing stories of impact about amazing work. Stories involving students, teachers, administrators, parents, community, systems, and the profession. Stories that call for action to continue building on success, not stories with “the answer.” Stories that point to growth and improvements for students and adults.

What’s your story?


Ann’s post is the first in 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.

 

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