Education Opinion

The Stories Teachers Tell

By Elena Aguilar — March 17, 2017 2 min read
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Recently, this short graphic article “What do I do with IT?” landed in my email. Take a quick look—it’s not long. I was reminded of a couple things: First, how much my brain likes visuals (all human brains do), and second, how much we like to tell stories. Our brains also love stories. We’re wired to remember them, and we are constantly making up stories about our experiences. A story is essentially an interpretation of an event or occurrence, and we do this in order to make sense of our lives.

Our stories can be empowering, motivating, and useful—or they can be undermining and destructive. Think about any difficult moment you’ve faced in your life and see if you can tease out the story you told about it. What’s the meaning that you make of it now? What meaning did you make then? And most important, how does that story work for you? What I mean by that is whether the story makes you feel more excited to face another day, to take a new risk, make a new friend, and so on.

As a coach in schools, I’m constantly on the listen for storytelling that doesn’t serve the tellers or students or the community that they serve. My ears have a hounddog-like quality for sniffing out storytelling because they reveal so much about what someone believes—and we act from our beliefs. So if a teacher’s story is, “I tried giving my students a project to work on in groups and they couldn’t handle it,” then she may not be inclined to try that again. She might go back to giving them worksheets. She might dumb down their learning. She sees the students as the problem (rather than the instructional strategies she’s using) and so she’s less likely to look at her own practice.

When I hear a teacher say something like that, one of my standard responses is, “Is there any other way you might be able to interpret that?” I usually prod and probe because I really want him or her to do the thinking and arrive at the conclusion that yes, there are other interpretations, other stories I can tell. But if they don’t get there then sometimes I say something like, “I’m wondering if your students might have needed more scaffolding, or an exemplar, or to have watched a group model working on the project in a fishbowl? How do you think that might have impacted their ability to work in groups?”

And sometimes, if I hear a teacher saying similar stories time after time, I even say something like, “You know, I often hear you telling stories about your student’s lack of ability. For example...Is this something we could explore together? I wonder if it might help you—and your students—if your storytelling changed a bit.”

What are the stories that you hear in schools? What are the stories you tell about your own work in schools?

This week, listen for stories from your clients and colleagues, from yourself. Listen for where you’re adding meaning to an event, how you’re interpreting something that happens. And then consider whether those stories are serving you. Do they feel good to tell? And if not, you can always experiment with telling a different one or making a slight shift in how you’re telling it. And then see how that feels.

The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers 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.