Teachers are storytellers.
And like any storyteller, it’s our ultimate goal to reach our students through our instruction. If we’re lucky, we’ll inspire curiosity and a love of learning that will last a lifetime.
Teacher leaders take their storytelling to the next level by sharing their practice, insights, expertise, questions, challenges, triumphs, and more with a larger audience of colleagues, families, communities, and policymakers within the education ecosystem and in society at large. The goal is to resonate here, too — to connect, impact, influence, inspire — in the hope that they will be able to play a small part in transforming climate, culture, and teaching and learning opportunities in schools. But in order to affect this kind of change, teacher leaders must not only tell stories, they must tell effective stories.
Every teacher has a story to tell; but finding and crafting a compelling, authentic story is a skill that requires attention, effort, and a few great strategies. So, let’s dig in and begin the process of uncovering your stories.
Finding Your Story
The funny thing about stories is they seem to be plentiful when we don’t need them and woefully absent when we do. The only way you’re going to have stories available to tell when you need them is to look for them.
Tip 1: Believe You Have A Story To Tell
- Most teachers don’t believe they have a story to tell; or if they do, they don’t think their story is important, unique, or that anyone would care to hear it. If you’re one of these teachers, suspend this belief right now. You have a lifetime of personal stories and a career full of teacher stories to tell. Your most impactful stories will be the ones you mistake as simple or ordinary because they’re the ones your audience will relate to. The simple, ordinary stories resonate because they allow your audience to think… I’m not alone after all; that happened to me too!
Tip 2: Know Your “Why”
- We tell stories to connect through our shared experiences, beliefs, and purpose. We appreciate facts and logic — even wit; but we feel story.
- Telling your personal stories will provide opportunities to be transparent and allow your audience a glimpse of your authentic self and help you to develop trust, to influence behavior, and to inspire action.
- Your story may be the gift another teacher out there needs right now. Your colleagues can benefit from your perspectives, learn from your mistakes, or be inspired and empowered by your tenacity.
Tip 3: Find Your Stories in the Everyday and in the Turning Points
- Look for stories in experiences all teachers share: your first teaching position/classroom, your first discipline issue, the faculty room, evaluations, lesson planning, assessment, parent-teacher conferences, field trips, professional learning, conferences, pep rallies, spirit week, summer vacation, celebrations, graduate school, graduation, etc. Many of your best stories will be woven into the relationships you share with colleagues and hidden in the time you spend with each other as friends outside of the classroom. Examples of these stories are everywhere. Read as Sarah Brown Wessling explains to her children What It Means To Be A Teacher. Empathize with Tom as he navigates the Struggles of Being a Teacher Leader. Smile that knowing smile as you recognize yourself in Crystal’s evolution from teacher to teacher leader as she finds her voice.
- Learn to recognize the stories happening right now. This can be difficult because it requires being present and in the moment. Engage. Have conversations. Pay attention to your emotions.
- Be ready to capture stories. Carry a small notebook. Take notes in an app on your phone. Capture story inspiration in photographs, video, or with a voice recorder. This way, the raw material for your stories will be ready, available, and within reach when you are.
- Don’t judge your stories. Give your memories and ideas a chance to live a little before you label them insignificant.
- Look for stories in the turning points or big, life-changing moments: birth, death, marriage, divorce, college graduation, first job, quitting a job / losing a job, leaving one school for another, taking a hybrid role, leaving the classroom, etc.
Tip 4: Tap Your Time Machine
- All it takes is a song, a smell, the sound of someone’s voice, a photograph, and we’re transported back to another time and place. Dig through a drawer, a box, or an album. Listen to an old playlist. Flip through some old lesson plans, a yearbook, or older social media posts. Or… spend some time with old friends and see what long forgotten stories come up naturally.
Tip 5: Don’t Be Afraid of Difficult Stories
- Teacher leaders shouldn’t be afraid to engage in difficult conversations; in fact, we’re counting on you to step up and lead. In a Tchers’ Voice post, Shiela Banks tells us that while difficult conversations are not necessarily enjoyable, they are necessary and must occur if we’re working in the best interest of students. And Dr. Irvin Scott reminds us in his recent post that we must push past the discomfort of difficult conversations, especially those around race, implicit bias, and equity, not only for the benefit of our students but for our own benefit as well. Some of these conversations may even continue in the classroom with students, as evidenced by the work of teachers like Matthew Colley, Catherine Thompson, and Kristin Leong.
Crafting Your Story
The act of telling a story and the act of telling a compelling, authentic story aren’t one in the same. Humans are wired for story; but the craft of storytelling doesn’t come naturally. Telling your story requires an investment of your time, energy, and attention. Much like the skills we teach in the classroom, effective storytelling depends upon a set of skills that require effort and practice to achieve mastery. And we can’t forget the art of storytelling that will make your message resonate and allow you to take the raw material of your every day and move your audience to tears or inspire them to take action.
Tip 6: Use Stories to Make Your Message Matter
- Carefully select stories that illustrate an intentional and deliberate point. A story is meant to illustrate your point and bring it to life. But, it should also have rhyme and reason and make sense to your audience if you want your story to have an impact. If your stories are either misplaced or all over the place, your message will be lost.
Tip 7: Understand What A Personal Story Is and What A Personal Story Isn’t
- You aim to craft your story. Some of the greatest, most profound, most engaging speakers aren’t telling personal stories. Don’t compare your storytelling journey to the great speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the poetry of Maya Angelou, or even the inspiring words of President Barack Obama. Your teacher story doesn’t have to rival Clint Smith’s The Danger of Silence or Sarah Kay’s If I Should Have A Daughter … — it simply has to be yours. Here’s Jaraux Washington, a seventh grade science teacher from Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida and a CTQ Teacher Leader telling her unique teacher story:
- Personal stories aren’t hypotheticals (Imagine if you will …). Hypotheticals may illustrate a point, but only at a surface level. If you do your job as a storyteller, your audience will imagine along with you — you won’t have to paint the scene for them.
- Effective personal stories can’t be summed up in six words or through an improvised collaboration. You need the time and space to build out your narrative and your audience needs time to invest. If you don’t take the time to lead your audience along the path you wish for them to take, they may carve one of their own that isn’t what you intended.
Tip 8: Be Your Own Hero, Build Your Own Narrative
- When discussing storytelling, many people go immediately to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey as a structure. This is a complex and fantastic story structure and you certainly can tell your teacher leader story using this lens; however, it’s not the only story structure.
- Stories typically have a beginning, middle, and an end; however, this simple structure may not be the ideal structure for thinking about a teacher story since teachers engage in cycles of growth and learning with no real end.
- A “Story Mountain,” or a similar structure storyteller Kindra Hall refers to as Normal — Explosion — New Normal, lends itself to the development of a strong teacher story.
- First, the “Normal.” Capture attention with a strong hook. You must build the foundation from which you move the audience forward. What journey do you want the reader or listener to take? Give just enough details to guide, but allow the audience to imagine the rest, so your message becomes attached to their memories and rooted in their reality. Give intentional, relevant, specific details that build to the “Explosion.” Describe the important people in your story in a way that allows your audience to know them and care. Describe the setting in such a way that it isn’t too detailed but simply gives hints to their brains about what types of images to create.
- The “Explosion” is the action or turning point in the story. It is the moment things changed. The “Explosion” doesn’t have to be epic to make a compelling story — it can be big or small, positive or negative. Something happened and reality changed. The inversion is what is truly important — not the “Explosion.”
- The “New Normal” is the resolution. You address the change or inversion in this final section of the story structure. How did you change? What did you learn? Who did you become? How did you improve? Are you wiser? Stronger? What should the audience learn by listening to you? This is the part of the story that truly makes or breaks your authenticity. Every detail, decision, person, or plot twist presented to this point was placed there intentionally because you lived it and learned from it.
Tip 9: Create a List or Story Web To Generate New Story Ideas and Details
- Create thorough lists and take the time to think about the memories connected with the words you write.
- Expand your initial list to fill in the details.
- Ask yourself probing questions and answer them.
- If you aren’t really a list person, make a web to allow for a little more creativity and mental space.
Tip 10: Avoid Common Storytelling Traps
- No “and then …”! Recognize that your story is not confined by conventional rules of space and time. Just because you lived it chronologically doesn’t mean you have to tell it that way. Reorganize your story so it makes the most sense to your audience.
- Everything but the kitchen sink? It’s your story and you will likely be in love with every detail, but every detail isn’t necessary and you’re going to have to take some of the good stuff out. A story that “tells it all” is likely ineffective. Focus on the details that enhance the purpose of the story and illuminate your message.
- Is it a story of survival or a sob story? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. These stories can be messy and difficult to tell. Stay positive and solutions-focused — even if it’s a story about overcoming obstacles. Remember, the journey your audience takes should be completely different from your original experience. It should be masterfully crafted to be uplifting.
- End strong. Your audience should know you have reached the end of your story. They should know why they’ve engaged and should have a concrete takeaway. If they don’t your story is little more than a missed opportunity.
If you need help finding and crafting your story, or are simply seeking a thought-partner in your storytelling journey, reach out to National Blogging Collaborative. We can help!
How do you find and craft your stories? Are there tips that you can add to the list? Post them in the comments below.
Lisa Hollenbach is Editorial Content Manager for Teaching Channel. She’s a former high school Social Studies teacher and Department Chair, who has experience planning and implementing professional development with educational technology integration and innovation, and teaching and learning with the Literacy Design Collaborative framework. Lisa is also an adjunct professor, working with pre-service social studies teachers and behavioral science students at Lebanon Valley College and Pennsylvania State University, and serves as a mentor for the Teacher Leadership program at Mt. Holyoke College. She is passionate about storytelling, teacher voice and leadership, collaboration, innovative instruction, social learning, and redefining professional development. Lisa is a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, several ECET2 Steering Committees, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Lisa leads the Collaborative in engagement and social media storytelling. Connect with Lisa on Teaching Channel, on her blog, or on Twitter: @lisa_hollenbach.