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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  • JessicaCuthbertson

    Power of collective stories/voices

    Thank you, Ann, for this thought provoking post. I agree that for too long educators have let others (mostly those who work outside of classrooms and schools) tell the story of public education. I liken it to voting — really hard to push back on the status quo if you're not casting a vote at the booth and actively engaging in the democratic process — similarly, it's really hard to bemoan the narratives shared and spread about education, unless you're actively engaged in crafting and sharing authentic narratives from inside the profession. 

    I love that you nudge educators to shed (some) humility and go public. Going public with my own practice, initially through the National Board process and then through hosting lab visits, engaging in video coaching, and blogging, was the best professional and personal learning — for myself and for students — and helped me overcome so many fears and boldy engage in an act of vulnerability — what we as educators want for our students. I can only imagine if this was a schoolwide (or districtwide) practice what the results would be.

    One of my favorite parts of your post is this call to action: "What about focusing on “waving banners” for what other educators are doing or what your school or district is doing as a collective?"

    Surely, even if we struggle to face our own fears, we owe it to our students, colleagues, and the profession at large to share our stories and go public. 

    Thanks for encouraging and nudging us to do so. 


    • AnnByrd

      On the power of the collective sotry

      Thanks for these thoughtful comments, Jessica. Given how schools continue to be organized, with teachers struggling to de-isolate their practice and share expertise with colleagues, even those down the hall, the collective story holds much potential to re-vision how schools can (and should) look and work. You mentioned "lab visits, engaging in video coaching, and blogging" as ways you opened up and de-mystified your practice for others, both in and out of the classroom. So many practitioners dismiss and/or do not recognize the complexity of their daily practice as worthy of a story–it's just what they do. And they don't have time to reflect on it with all of their competing priroties as professionals.

      Going public with explanation and analysis of that daily practice with evidence of impact is critical to shifting the narrative about the profession. When I served as a Director for NBPTS I remember touring the warehouse in Texas that housed thousands and thousands of VHS tapes (yep, it was a while ago)! Think of all the stories secreted away in those boxes (yes I know about all the implications of legalities involved)…. The image of all those "silent movies" collecting dust has stuck with me. So many stories that need telling are hidden in plain sight, by NBCTs and so many other accomplished teachers!

  • LoriNazareno

    Holding on to stories

    I found this statement to be particularly impactful for me: We face an audience of former students who must revise their own stories to hear ours. 

    While I have done lots of talking to policymakers and other stakeholders over the years, and I know that everyone bring their own experience to a conversation, I don't think I quite understood it as deeply as I do now. I don't think I really grasped the idea of the "audience" needing to REVISE their own stories to hear others. This is truly powerful and seems like it could have some pretty significant implications for HOW teachers tell their stories.

    I have heard those who support folks in sharing their story remind teachers that the telling of their story is all about using their teaching skills. And with this added focus on helping the "learner" revise their story so that they can hear a different one is powerful.

    Ann (and others), what advice do you have for teacher-writers about how they can help "listeners" acknowledge and suspend their own stories so that they can hear the one the teacher is telling?

    Thanks so much for sharing this and getting this round table started. I look forward to hearing more!

    • AnnByrd

      Suspending stories to hear in the present

      Great question, Lori! And, yes, the skills for effective storytelling align with those necessary for effective teaching. Understanding audience, recognizing prior knowledge, anticipating challenges for understanding, and providing concise and clear information are all important for compelling stories.

      As authors, the need for empathy mapping is key and has become a particularly important component of the "process of getting to story" in the CTQ suite of tools. If we can anticipate, with some degree of accuracy, how an audience may "hear" our stories, because of their familiarity with schools and schooling, then we can make the "assumingly known even more knowable" through much more explicit narrative. It is not the "unknown" that challenges us nearly as often as it is the "misknown."

      We must address the general opinions of "I think I know the complexity of teaching because I watched it happening. I have never taught, but…." To do that, teachers must dig deeply into the specifics of what they do, why they do it, how they know it works (or does not), as well as how that impacts their practice. Teachers carry these complexities around with them but rarely have opportunity to speak of them — that's the challenge of story. 

  • bryanchristopher

    On the Power of Story

    Love this post. Teachers often need a nudge to realize how their skills and expertise play outside their own schools and classrooms. They are world-class problem solvers, and their stories give audiences windows into lives and classrooms that challenge the "when I was in school…" mindset. 

    Ann – once teachers are ready to share their story, how do you provide the support and platform that they need to publish it?

    • AnnByrd

      Providing support and a platform for teachers

      Thanks for the comment and great question, Bryan. Often teachers don't even realize they are "ready to share" since so much of what they do feels like it is "part of who they are" as teachers. At CTQ, we have focused on this aspect to shift the narrative of teaching for a number of years now. As part of our work, we have a suite of tools (mentioned in my blog). These tools are designed to walk storytellers through a sophisticated introspective journey to focus on evidence, impact, and delivery of story. Thus far, we have hosted two cohorts of stroytellers using this suite, and many others have drawn upon several tools in more isolated contexts. We draw upon E. Wenger's value creation  as our research base to ground this work. I invite you to visit http://www.teachingquality.org/storiesofimpact to see the powerful results we are disseminating! 

  • akrafel

    Thinking of a Story to Tell.

    I was moved by all the blog posts on story to search my mind and 40 years of teaching to find a story I could tell. It feels like looking at en enormous forest and trying to tell about a particular part, or a critical piece, headwinds, tailwinds, things are are  burned into my mind as a single story, yet spread out like a web of immense complexity.  The more I think about it the more this image of a teacher in a class being video taped pops into my head. The tape will be reviewed and lessons will be learned and yet the comfort level in doing this is edgy and intimate. You can not be a teacher without baring your soul somehow, without being an imperfect human being on display, performing on stage day in and day out. So many teachers dread this idea of being taped and having the tape watched by others or by being observed by others because they feel so exposed. What is it about teaching that creates this intimate requirement of allowing yourself to be exposed, to kids, to parents, to collegues, to the world? I remember working in a university lab school where staff teachers were expected to routinely make tapes of our teaching (yeah those old VHS kind) to be shared with undergradutate students who were working in the school as a class on Creative Learning In Children. I tried and tried and tried to make the perfect tape, teach a flawless lesson.  I could never do it. There was always some detail I missed, some opportunity I did not capitalize on, a question I could have asked but didn't think of, some clumsy interaction, some tone of voice that could have been softer. It is like the headwinds show up in huge detail, and it is hard to see what is going on that is right and even mre difficult to appreciate what is not happening that can make a lesson great.  It is all in real time and a teacher could not possibly address all those levels of complexity. Yet we try. In trying to do so we create a vulnerablity of a deeply personal nature. When we connect with a student and that light goes on, we know we are doing sacred work, even though the lessons will always be imperfect. How do I tell a story that captures that immensity, complexity, talent and courage? I will have to think deeply about this. What is it about teaching that makes us so necessarily vulnerable, pushes us into the intimate spaces of our beings? It makes teaching a joy and a risk. Every day. How do I capture such a story?

    • TriciaEbner

      You’ve pinpointed the challenge . . .

      Alysia, your response hits exactly on what I struggle with so often. How do I winnow through the myriad of challenges, issues, successes, and failures to tell the story? In my own experience, I have to wrestle with several ideas. When I am able to use a kind of "telephoto lens" to hone in on one instance, then I see to gain traction. It takes wrestling to get to that point, though! I'd love to hear how others do this. How do you determine what snapshot, what moment in time, is the story that needs to be shared?