Risks and rewards: Moving past the single story

One powerful statement during a parent-teacher conference revealed the dangers of single stories. The moments that followed illustrate the importance of listening, sharing stories, and seeking to understand one another in building strong relationships with families.

It’s a scene that will always remain etched in my memory: a parent, eyes burning intently into mine, sitting across from me at the parent-teacher conference table, saying, “But I understand you’re really here to just ‘take these kids down a peg.’”

As a new gifted intervention specialist (GIS), so excited about supporting and encouraging gifted learners, the comment cut straight to my heart. It literally took my breath away. I am pretty sure my jaw dropped and I simply stared for a moment. The parent’s statement was the exact opposite of why I was in this new role.

How did this happen?

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie shares a powerful TED Talk called “The Danger of the Single Story.” Her message is vitally important for all of us, because far too often we can take the story we know and draw all kinds of conclusions from it, many of which are inaccurate. Because the single story is incomplete, it can become dangerous in its limitations.

In the instance of that harrowing parent-teacher conference, the parent had come to the conference knowing a single story. In the story the parent believed, the gaps had been filled with her perceptions of the truth, and the result was the explosive comment made in the conference.

In the moments following the statement, I gathered my scattered thoughts and spoke to the parent about the goals and purposes of the program. We were using a new-to-us model for gifted services. I thought my coordinator and I had made the format and purposes clear, but this parent’s statement suggested otherwise. It was painfully obvious that the parent had drawn her own conclusions. When the facts weren’t clear, she pieced together what she could to develop her own narrative.

Imagine, though, what could have unfolded had the parent not shared her single story. Had she kept quiet, what ultimately became a terrific parent-teacher partnership may never have had the opportunity to develop. Instead, we could have spent the next two and a half years in a state of distrust — dreading every email, phone call, and face-to-face interaction. Only by listening to each other’s stories were we able to piece together the whole story, trusting one another, and building a partnership. 

This kind of situation isn’t limited to individual programs or school buildings. When information isn’t easily accessible or understood, it is far too easy to create a story based on the bits and pieces that are known. In general, people want to know and understand the whole story. Having just bits and pieces can be unsatisfying and even uncomfortable. When something is incomplete, we look for the information we need to give us the whole story.

Sharing our stories

As a profession, we have never felt more unappreciated, more “under fire,” as it were, than in recent years. It’s natural to want to take a defensive posture. After all, it feels safest for us to do what we know and do best: go into our classrooms, close our doors, and teach our students.

Sharing our experiences and perspectives is risky. What if something we do flies in the face of what someone else is saying we should do? What if someone criticizes us? What if something we say or write prompts someone to question our professional knowledge and integrity?

Simply put, as Ann Byrd calls us to do in her launch post, we must share our stories of impact.  When we don’t share our perspectives, the story that develops without our knowledge and understanding will always be incomplete; a single story. If we don’t share our stories, we leave information gaps, and those gaps may or may not be filled with accurate details.

Our silence is riskier than our speaking and writing.

Seeking to understand

Sharing our stories also means we need to listen to others’ narratives. In order to develop a full, complete picture, we need all perspectives, as Adichie points out in her talk. Think about the times when we, as educators, observe particular behaviors in a student and draw conclusions about what is going on, only to learn later that our conclusions were inaccurate.

We learn through our training and experiences that we can’t rely on a single data point or behavior incident. We need to gather information, make observations, and talk with others to get as full and complete a picture as possible. In order to truly understand each other, we cannot rely on the single story.

Breaking the single story

We cannot wait for someone else to share our stories.

We know what is working in our classrooms. We see faces light up when they understand a new concept or master a new skill.

We also know the struggles we face on a daily basis. We know the strategies and interventions we’ve tried, what’s worked, and what hasn’t. As a result, we know what we need to try next in order to move our students forward in their learning.

As educators, we have both the privilege and responsibility of sharing our stories, so that others can add our stories to their own. In those pivotal moments in that painful parent-teacher conference, I not only heard the frustration in the parent’s story, but I also took the opportunity to share my own perspective, including my plans and goals for the students and the gifted program. By opening that two-way communication, the parent and I started down a path that grew into mutual respect and a partnership that benefited not only the student, but us as well.

It was a lesson in the power of listening and the importance of speaking, one that I have continued to remember and use in my daily interactions with students, parents, and colleagues.

Only by sharing our stories can we avoid the dangers of being silent.  

Tricia’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.


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  • LoriNazareno

    Beyond the single story.

    Thank you for this post Tricia, it helped me to think more deeply about this TED talk and its utility beyond how I have been using it.

    I particularly love the connections that you draw between this "single story" TED talk and how teachers show up in their own work and tell their stories. I think it particularly powerful and important for teachers to know that telling their stories and the stories of their students helps others see beyond the single story. Single stories, like single test scores are easy, but they are not complete or even accurate in most cases. In a world that want to judge student performance and, thereby, teacher performance based on a single story (aka test score) it is EXTREMELY important for teachers to tell share their experiences so that others can get a more complete picture of what they do and what students are learning.

  • JessicaCuthbertson

    More Risks = More Rewards?

    Love this post, Tricia! I think it is courageous and important that you shared an anecdote about an initially confrontational relationship with a parent that evolved into a powerful family/school partnership. These are exactly the types of stories educators (and the families they serve) need to be sharing.

    I wonder what supported you most in your storytelling journey? How did you embrace vulnerability and risk? How might we support our colleagues to do the same? I've found in my own journey, that the more you risk, lean into vulnerability and share stories, the greater the rewards — the more you learn, grow, change, revise/refine and expand your practice and yourself as an educator. But I struggle to "sell" this risk/vulnerability to others…any ideas on how I might support and encourage colleagues to take risks, go public, and share their stories with broader audiences? 

    • TriciaEbner

      Support–so critical

      Those are great questions, Jessica. In beginning to share my stories about teaching and learning, it was colleagues I'd met beyond my district that supported me most. Realizing that my stories weren't necessarily important only to me, but to an audience beyond my four walls and beyond the boundaries of my district, was huge. Having the encouragement and support of teachers within my state but also beyond was huge, and having willing critical friends who gave me feedback was also important. Once I had shared a couple of stories, got positive feedback from a number of people, and ESPECIALLY got powerful, positive feedback from my own colleagues or administrators, I began to feel more confident in sharing my stories. 

      We have to support each other in this. Education can be so isolating if we allow it to be. Sharing our stories is key, and supporting each other in the sharing of those stories is also vitally important. 

      I'd really like to know how others have come to share their stories? How have we all learned to take the risks of being vulnerable and sharing what's happening within our classrooms?



  • JohnHolland

    Stories are Persistent


    Thank you for sharing this experience. One of the things I miss about early childhood teaching, as an art teacher, are the daily interactions with parents. I used to love my home visits and parent conferences for just this reason. The sharing of stories and the challenging of mine, and my parents, perceptions of their children. I am interested to know what you did that made this parent brave enough to share her perspective? If your actions, intentional or otherwise, had already confirmed this perspective perhaps the statement would never have been made? Finally, one of my pet interests are the micro-stories of metaphor. Your parent said you were there to "take them down a peg." This visual metaphor provides a visceral understanding of the parent's perspective. Can you recall the metaphors or examples you used to challenge this perspective of the parent? Did you draw on your perspective, hers, or both?


    • TriciaEbner

      Great questions . . .

      Since this incident is from more than 20 years ago, it's a little hard for me to remember the details of the conversation. I was so shocked by the statement, and that's what's burned into my memory. I think that given how I handle parent-teacher conferences, she was seeing a disconnect between what her perceptions were coming into the conference, and what I was showing through my words and body language in the conference . I usually start by asking what questions or concerns the parent has, inviting them into the conversation.. Her comment came toward the end. Perhaps the conversational way I try to handle conferences invited her to bring this up.

      I'm not sure I used any metaphors to counter hers. I know I stressed that I was working with her child and the others in the class because I was invested in ensuring they had the kind of educational experiences they needed, and my focus included taking classes and attending professional development outside the school day to hep me deepen my knowledge and skills. I also shared some examples of the kinds of thinking and work I was seeing her child doing in class. We closed by agreeing to stay in touch and communicate regularly about any questions, concerns, and successes we were seeing. 

      Thinking back on this experience in this way has made me wish I had been journaling and blogging regularly back then.