Stories Tell You Who Matters

Until we are able to reclaim our own stories, we adopt the stories of others.

Both the easiest and the most profound practice I adopted as a department chair and staff developer was to welcome teachers to write as a way to begin meetings, then find a partner and read to each other.

When I began with the question protocol I’d been using with students, that small opening reshaped our time together, creating depth and connection more quickly than silly icebreakers or other getting-to-know-you exercises.

We have fear and hesitation around speaking with each other this way. I think our profession’s implicit demands to be up and be on creates the same kind of loneliness and isolation for teachers as it does for students.

“There’s always somebody who wants to confiscate our humanity, and there are always stories that restore it.” — Andrew Solomon

Being willing with even one like-minded colleague is all that’s necessary to begin.

Until we are able to reclaim our own stories, we adopt the stories of others. Their stories about us become their definitions of us and set their purposes for us.

In learning to reclaim our stories, we remember who we are and why we do the work we do.

When we share them with each other, we are practicing a form of professional development that is personal and sustainable. Marshall Ganz, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, calls this the “power of public narrative and the art of leadership storytelling.

He writes that we “have to claim authorship of [our] story and learn to tell it to others so they can understand the values that move [us] to act, because it might move them to act as well.”

How This Helps Educators

Teaching is personal in the way that medicine is personal. Like the unguarded nature of illness, submitting yourself to learning from another is a vulnerable process. It’s a risk to say, “I don’t know” or “I’m hurting,” and trust in another to hold it in a way that helps us.

It feels safer to fill our days with “administrivia,” arming ourselves with checklists and objectives against the daily crush of so much responsibility with so little say about what happens.

Taking the lead in designing our own professional development as an embedded, iterative process helps us to reclaim our identities as teachers, as learners, as people with agency and expertise. We don’t have to wait for a group or wait for permission.

Begin with a belief that your best work comes from the alchemy of honest and brave conversations between human beings. No one will applaud you for doing this or make it easy for you to do.

If you want this, you will have to take it for yourself and your colleagues. That’s why you have to affirm each other and why you have to create the space and time necessary to do this work.

With even one other person, we can give each other the grace that comes when we answer those implicit questions that cause us to suffer because we believe we’re alone in having them.

Start With 15 Minute Storytelling Pairs

Parker Palmer suggested using them as a way of prompting people to tell stories: “You give them fifteen minutes to tell a story, and then you give the folks that that person is sitting with fifteen minutes to ask honest open questions, and it becomes a different kind of conversation.”

Palmer, an author and frequent contributor to On Being, said these kinds of conversations create a deep validation for everyone involved because they feel listened to and they find that they have space to think about their professional challenges with new depth.

If you’re interested in the protocols that support this kind of work as well as a narrative of how questions provoke inquiry and empathy among children and adults, I’d love for you to take a look at my new book, Think Like Socrates.