Several years ago, a mentor approached me with an opportunity for which she thought I had just the skill set. It was a far stretch from my comfort zone and my knee-jerk reaction was to reply with a “thanks, but no thanks.” You see, this was at a time when I was just a little seedling of a teacher leader. I was growing, absolutely, but I was still nestled safely beneath the surface, not yet ready to push through the ground and share with the world who I am, what I know, and what I think.
Despite my reluctance, and inspired by the confidence of someone I respected immensely, I applied to be part of a cohort of teachers who were tasked with blogging about standards for learning, instructional best practices, assessment strategies, and basically anything to do with the how-to’s of being an effective practitioner. As a fourth year teacher, what I didn’t know far exceeded what I did, but I was obsessed with learning about learning and I had an insatiable appetite for books, articles, and blogs that discussed how to be a better teacher. Because of this, I accepted the position and felt mildly confident (at the time, that was a big deal) in my ability to put something out into the world that at least one person could find beneficial.
Until it came time to write my first post.
“Tell me the facts and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe.
But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
— Native American Proverb
Leadership is hard; it’s littered with the unknown, filled with the unexpected, packed with the unanswerable, and bursting with challenges great and small. Yet at its core, leadership is an essential element to successful school culture — to developing, building, and even changing the ways in which schools operate, teach, learn, and grow.
When exploring school culture and its correlation to leadership, though, it’s essential that we think of the term of “school leader” in a more global sense. At their core, teachers are leaders. And when the “leaders” of a school realize this fact and empower teachers to help enact change, welcoming them into the STORY of their school, the impossible becomes the reality, the unimaginable becomes the routine.
You see, teachers are leaders because they’re at the center of the humanity within the work; living in and yet simultaneously crafting the story of the school, the narrative of the culture, and this is absolutely essential because the reality is this: a story entertains; it engages; it endears us to others; it enrages; but most importantly, it EMPOWERS. Without the story, we’re left with blank slates. Simply put, we — and our school cultures — are incomplete. As Michael Margolis, CEO at Get Storied said, “If you want to learn about a culture, listen to the stories. If you want to change a culture, change the stories.”
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.
There are 3.3 million teachers in the United States, which means there are 3.3 million stories that need to be heard. What I’ve been wondering lately is, is it possible for these collective stories to become a critical catalyst to ensuring transformational teaching and learning experiences for students in this country, especially those who are subject to low expectations brought on by their race, nationality, language of origin, or disability?
No one knows teachers like teachers, and no one — in schools — knows students like teachers. This is one of the reasons why when we started ECET2 — Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teaching and Teachers — we immediately penned the phrase, “Know Your Story, Share Your Story.”
What if I told you there’s a new teacher out there struggling who needs you — would you share your story?
I remember my first year like it was yesterday. I accepted an interview for a permanent position on September 30th. I thought this was strange timing, given the new school year had just begun; however, to me, it was also serendipitous.
There was no question in my mind that I would take the chance to sit for an interview and teach a lesson to what would become my first class of students.
I was so excited to learn I would have a real job, I hardly took the time to wonder why several teachers left this position in the short month since the school opened its doors, or what it meant when a series of administrators and faculty characterized the group of sweet, cooperative adolescents I met as “challenging.” In fact, it didn’t even phase me that, after announcing what my new salary would be, my then-superintendent asked, “So, do you still want the job?”
I am the baby of my family. For as long as I can remember, this placement has meant constantly trying to make sure everyone was taken care of and happy. By the time I reached school age, people pleasing was common practice for me. I wanted to make others proud of me. I wanted to be well received and would do whatever necessary to be well liked.
This led me to being a socialite among my middle school and high school peers. Yet, in seeking the approval of others, I taught the people around me what to expect of my behavior. I believed living for others, and living up to what I thought they expected of me, was the right thing to do. In school, I thought my role was to say what the teacher wanted or expected to hear. I was good at determining the “right” or “correct” response, so teachers enjoyed my presence in the classroom.
This people-pleasing mentality followed me into my adult life, but it wasn’t as effective. Although supervisors liked and respected my ability to follow commands, my ability to push back or give critical feedback on an idea was constantly compromised. I often sat in silent disagreement because I was too scared of retaliation to challenge any idea. It was easier to compromise my own beliefs to keep peace among the group, even if I knew my ideas had validity. Being likeable was much more valuable.
Five years ago, I had my first tangible opportunity to become a teacher leader. Selected to be part of a statewide grant, over a three-year period, I was asked to develop my own thoughts and support them with evidence. Intentionally, the facilitator didn’t validate my ideas. She forced me to take my own stance, knowing this experience would set me up to brush against my own insecurities. Rather than responding with excitement that someone was interested and invested in knowing who I was at my core, I grew frightened and afraid, crying out for the approval I knew well. Approval was always my validation and these new rules were uncomfortable.