Education Opinion

Call It a Story: Defining Our Profession

By Nancy Flanagan — January 29, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by Kelly Flynn.

Halfway through her senior year, Kimberly suddenly stopped coming to school. Messages left for her parents went unreturned. When she finally showed up after a three-week absence, I pulled her aside and inquired about her well-being. She’d been kicked out of her parent’s house, she said, but she did not want to say why. For three weeks she’d been living in her boyfriend’s van. She couldn’t actually stay at his house because his parents did not approve. When they went to work she was able to slip in and take a shower, and sometimes sneak something to eat. She had no money and nowhere to go. Her days, she said, were spent inside the van, sleeping, doing crossword puzzles, and listening to the radio. Kimberly was eighteen-years-old and five months from graduation. I bought her two bags of non-perishable groceries, tried repeatedly to talk to her parents, and contacted her counselor. One day she disappeared and never came back. She did not graduate.

That’s a true story about a real student in our public school system. And it’s important because schools are full of students like Kimberly: bright kids in unfathomable

circumstances that have a profound - and immeasurable - effect on their learning.

Kimberly became a dropout statistic. Her problems were complicated, and personal, and perhaps not really within the jurisdiction of the school system at all. But those personal problems had a direct effect on her academic success.

To beat back the corporate machine that is privatizing our public school system, teachers need to engage in a conversation with the public. Since the inception of NCLB, corporations and politicians have controlled an education conversation that demands that all reform be data-driven. Ironically, they’ve not invited teachers to participate.

It’s time for teachers to interrupt.

One way for teachers to take control of the reform dialogue is to tell their stories. Because it is our stories, rich with the culture of our life and times that reveal what kind of help educators really need to improve the learning environment for students. Anecdotal evidence is every bit as important as pie charts and percentages - perhaps even more so - precisely because it describes things that cannot be measured, yet have a profound effect on teaching and learning.

The teacher voice as part of the conversation is crucial because without it, the public will continue to believe what it reads in the mainstream media: that teachers are failing and privatization will fix it. This one-sided conversation, which relies on data provided by the entrepreneurs that will gain from privatization, needs to be replaced with the truth.

Only teachers can accurately report that truth. And one way to do that is through storytelling.

Though many teachers are not comfortable in the role of revolutionary, I’ve never met a teacher who isn’t eager to share every good thing about their students, their favorite lesson plans, and their funny, joyful classroom moments. I’ve also never met a teacher who doesn’t have dozens of stories about terribly troubled students, how those troubles impede their learning, and suggestions about exactly what kind of help those students need.

In this data-driven push to “reform” education, the compelling details of human struggle are being left out, stories of apathy, achievement, trauma, hope, and conflict. But such stories are potent. We relate. We identify. By contrast, data is dry and sometimes manipulated.

Words like, “the effects of poverty...” appear often in news stories, but the words are not enlightening. We’ve heard them so often they’ve lost meaning. They’re immediately forgettable, if they even register at all. The media may print, “testing can be stressful for students,” but a teacher can tell you about Jimmy, bent over at the waist from a nervous stomach, or Janie, biting her fingernails until they bleed. The media may print, “some students don’t take the test seriously,” but a teacher can describe for you the elaborate fish designed by a student filling in bubbles on his answer sheet. We’ve all read about students that “come to school hungry,” but a teacher can tell you that Jeremy couldn’t concentrate because he ate cold french fries for breakfast, left over from last night’s fast food dinner. You may read in the newspaper about “disruptive home lives,” but a teacher can tell you that Amy can’t study or sleep because she lives in a household where rap music plays at full volume all night.

That’s data. Can you measure it? No. But it’s still valid primary research.

Teachers, the ones responsible for educating the children of poverty, must show the public, this is how poverty - or neglect, or abuse, or crime, or drugs -- plays out in the classroom. This is what it looks like.

Because visuals are powerful. Consider the images a few simple words bring to mind: a snotty nose, a ragged hoodie with filthy cuffs, jagged fingernails caked with dirt, the sour smell of unwashed jeans and greasy hair, the wary, haunted look in a child’s eyes.

Stories allow us to connect with readers emotionally. And emotional connections open minds and hearts. Data doesn’t. After all, it was the emotional story of children waiting for lottery results in Waiting for Superman that tugged people’s heartstrings and gave the movie traction.

Teachers hold the stories that the public needs to hear, stories of struggle, transformation, redemption, disappointment, fear, loss, joy. And teachers already know the power of a good story, because they use stories to capture the attention of their students every day.

I believe teachers can share their truth in a strong clear voice, devoid of any “woe is me” sentiment. I believe that their collective voices will be powerful.

Where should teachers tell their stories? Everywhere. Online blogs, the comments section at the end of articles, letters to the editor, emails to politicians, call-in radio shows, parents at meetings, in line at the grocery store, social networking, posts on politicians’ Facebook and Twitter sites, and most importantly, to the media.

Because there’s power in numbers. If a reporter writes an article about education policy and really misses the mark, a reader may write to tell the other side of the story. That one complaint probably won’t influence the reporter. But twenty, fifty, or a hundred people writing to tell the other side of the story will likely spur the reporter to look into the issue more closely.

We can’t “reform” education until we see it clearly. Let’s replace the media spin with the truth.

Kelly Flynn is the author of The Teachers’ Lounge (Uncensored): A Funny, Edgy, Poignant Look at Life in the Classroom(includes a Foreword by Nancy Carlsson-Paige.) For seven years she wrote a weekly newspaper column about education that appeared on the Sunday op-ed page of The Flint Journal, and in the Jackson Citizen Patriot. She taught English and journalism in a suburban-turning-urban high school in Flint, Michigan for almost 20 years. Connect with Kelly at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.