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Storytelling in the New Normal of School

It’s been said you are what you eat, and if that’s the case, I’m currently a bowl of cereal and a banana, which for me is super healthy. (Hey, I’m working on it!)

In a similar way, we are the stories we tell ourselves or as author Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

If this is the case, I ask, “What are the stories you tell yourself, your students, staff, families, colleagues or greater community?” For some it’s a challenging question because your answer hinges on just how honest and reflective, you’re willing to be with yourself before turning around and sharing with those you serve and work alongside.

Storytelling like teaching is a personal endeavor that takes tremendous time and effort. There’s also a vulnerability many, if not most, adults feel in school sharing their personal lives with their stakeholders. As a principal, I was surprised by the number of teachers – competent to excellent – who feared speaking, talking and telling stories outside their primary audience, children. Back to School Nights were filled with dread for some teachers.

The art of storytelling is diminished when we’re not comfortable sharing our experiences. This is compounded when the adults are confused about exactly what they should share about and taken to another level of insecurity, if we dare to share stories of failure, as well as those of success.

I think this stems from the teacher, coach, principal and all the way up to superintendent all seeing themselves as experts in the business of teaching and learning, and experts talk in the language of what’s best and right without toiling in the unknowns or not daring to take a risk that might go astray.

This isn’t to say that your stories need to be gut-wrenchingly embarrassing or full of mistakes, but they must speak to your truth of who you are, what you value and how you will inspire your charges in whatever you say. Stories also don’t have to be funny or tragic (life seems to be filled with one or another these days), but they should provide a point – why the story is important to you and in turn, why your audience may find it interesting and important, as well.

In the context of school leadership or teaching, your stories will resonate with your audience because teaching and leading are simply extensions of who we are. And while you may be the central character of your stories, you shouldn’t always be the point of them. Make sense? Probably not.

Let me try to explain further. I often ask my educator audience two important questions when delivering a presentation:

· What is something that was hard for you to learn, but you learned it?

· What is something you gave up on and wish you hadn’t?

I, of course, model by telling my own stories. This gives the audience time to think and also a willingness to offer up their own stories when it’s their time to share them with their peers.

To answer the first question, I retell the story of how I learned how to drive a stick-shift car. It was my first new car purchase after I started my first full-time job but still lived at home rent free. While I could afford the car, I decided to save $700 by purchasing the model with a five-speed manual transmission. One problem: I had never driven a standard transmission, which meant I didn’t even test drive the car. At least I had a few days to learn before picking up the car.

My girlfriend at the time (who became my wife) tried in vain to teach me on her car with a stick…to no avail. I constantly stalled it out and since it was her car, her patience worn thin quickly. I was also a poor student not really grasping what I was supposed to do, when. It was not a recipe for success.

Thankfully, her mom (who became my mother-in-law) decided to give it a try. Since it wasn’t her car, and we had a different relationship, she taught me just enough that I was able to buck my brand-new car out of the dealership, whispering to myself the entire time, “Don’t stall! Don’t stall! Don’t stall!”

In the six months that followed there was plenty of bucking, stalling and just a straight out panic any time I found myself at a red light on a hill. All stick-shift drivers know what this means – on a hill you’ve got to carefully counter balance your feet moving off the brake onto the accelerator and off the clutch while shifting into gear to move forward. Not enough pressure on the clutch and the car stalls; too much clutch and the car’s likely to roll backwards and too much gas, too soon while not quite releasing the clutch on time and the car lurches forward.

There were plenty of times that all three happened to me, and I’d have to wave cars around while I tried to calm myself and figure out what I needed to correct to move forward. On more than one occasion both dirty looks and a few dirty words were sent my way.

This story is important for several reasons because it:

· Humanizes me quickly to audiences that don’t know me

· Relates a common experience of failure before success

· Shows my foolish youth and my willingness to share it

· Makes people laugh

When I do this with a room full of adults, it almost becomes a therapy session, a license to be human and educators immediately open up, sharing stories that even their closest colleagues didn’t know about them. I can’t stress enough that teachers and leaders must share their stories if they want to create stronger relationships with children and adults alike, especially as we prepare for a full, if not quite normal, school year in person. Yes, there was learning loss for everyone that must be addressed, more importantly there was relationships loss that we've yet to fully recover.

I encourage you to go into next school year with a few stories at the ready to share with whoever is front of you at school from preschoolers to school board members. Let them hear what makes you a unique learner in the world, and they are likely to reveal more of themselves to you and that is combination worth striving for in 2021-22!


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