“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.”
So, how can teachers, as the storytelling leaders of a school, help change a culture, help ensure that the humanity in the work is not only preserved but treasured in ways that value each and every character in the story?
How Teacher Leaders Use Storytelling
1. To Inspire
“That’s what storytellers do. We restore order with imagination.
We instill hope again and again.”
— Walt Disney
While it’s almost impossible to put a value on which of these five ways is most important, it’s hard to argue that inspiring others is anything less than absolutely essential. There’s a reciprocal reward of inspiration that comes from hearing and telling stories. We can motivate others to attempt feats within their classroom and the school that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable, but we’re also motivated to rethink, relive, and recreate our own narratives. As Ira Glass says, “Great stories happen to those who can tell them.”
2. To Share
“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world.”
— Robert McKe
Teachers are full of ideas, of great lessons, of ways to reach kids, and yet, so often we get caught up in one of two mistakes:
- Thinking no one will want to hear what I’m doing in my classroom.
- Simply telling people, “Hey, I tried this, and it worked.”
However, when we use stories to share new ideas, new pedagogies, new approaches, the process empowers and enriches. It’s like Ken Kesey once quipped, “To hell with facts! We need stories!”
3. To Engage
“Storytelling is the mother of all ‘pull’ marketing strategies. It encourages
dialogue, engagement and interaction among equals — an exchange
of meaning between people.”
— Bill Baker
Teachers must share their stories; it’s the most fundamental way to pull people in: be that their students, their peers, the administration, parents and families, and even the community as a whole. Successful school culture is wholly dependent upon all stakeholders seeing and believing in the value of the work of the teacher, and it’s through stories that we can engage not only the stakeholder’s mind, but his or her heart to the passion of our work. As Alex Garland reminds us, “Storytelling is the calculated release of information.”
4. To Comfort
“The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.”
— Ben Okri
Be it because of pressure from the media, the community, politicians, administrators, peers, students, or most often, ourselves, teachers are perfectionists, constantly striving for an unreachable level of quality; however, through stories, we can explore our shortcomings, admit our failures, and find comfort in them, learning from and growing with one another to become better. When things get hard, we need stories the most. As Tim O’Brien once said, “Storytelling is the essential human activity. The harder the situation, the more essential it is.”
5. To Affect Change
“There is always room for a story that can transport people to another place.”
— J.K. Rowling
And while Rowling might’ve been thinking about “another place” as a world far away, a fantastical reprieve from reality, so does and so should the storytelling teacher leader. Through stories we can enact change, give legs to the paralysis that is bureaucracy, and help all involved not only imagine and embrace, but yearn for new frontiers. Changing a school is complex, but as Jean Luc Godard encourages, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.”
“We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories” (John Gottschall). So, as a teacher, as a school leader, as a visionary driver of change, it’s incumbent upon you to “know your story, share your story” (Irvin Scott). Because while there are many pathways to create change, “stories are the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal” (Howard Gardner).
How do you use storytelling as a teacher leader?