Science Opinion

Become Storytelling Leaders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 15, 2014 5 min read
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There is much written about myths that transcend cultures. Myths begin as stories, shared around fires and tables, on laps and in circles, passed from one generation to the next. Myths are often about super beings, gods, heroes and heroines and journeys. They come from the Greeks and from indigenous people across continents, from before anyone wrote them down. They are powerful. They help explain things, events or human situations, and they give meaning to life, culture and ritual. We need such stories. They teach values and morals. They reach us deep inside and offer to explain our circumstance and help us move forward.

Marketing is a form of storytelling as well. According to Jonah Sachs, it was around WWI “American political leaders of the time practically begged marketers to step in. As a result, the marketer went from a product pitchman to a major player in our cultural destiny” (p.64). It is our human affinity for story telling that marketers study. The success of a public relations person or an advertising person is determined by how well the story captures the rest of us. It is through advertising story we move from one style of clothing to another, from one type of decorating to another, from one brand of technology to another, from one model of car to another, from one public official to another. They artfully create a story that we want to be a part of...and we buy into it.

Do you remember taking a story telling class as you prepared to become a leader? We didn’t. But, leaders must become better storytellers, or they need to budget for those who can tell our stories.

Here is an example of a storytelling gap. On page 10 of the first section of a local newspaper, near the end of the obituaries, is an article entitled “3-D printing grows in region.” The article lists the locations of 3D printers in the area that are now available for local businesses to “work and play and test and prototype and experiment and train.” Note what comes mid article. Quoting a local library director, “The main reason the library bought the 3-D printer was to engage teens and cultivate their interest in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM disciplines.”

There is really good news here. The community libraries are supporting the STEM initiatives of the local schools. And, the library is thoughtful about teens and their needs. But, the transformative, curricular power of STEM and our story telling is captured in the phrase “so-called STEM disciplines”. Science, technology, engineering and math ARE the STEM disciplines, thus the acronym STEM. If we mean for STEM to cause a systemic change in our work and in the educational experience of students, we must protect it from being labeled as just the current educational phase. WE need to cultivate a deeper understanding and tell a better story.

In our ongoing research about STEM and its relationship to teaching and learning, we have found evidence of misunderstandings about where these subjects belong in our schools and why. We have found a misunderstanding about how a STEM program shift means that the arts and social sciences will be excluded. But, most alarmingly, we are finding a widening gap about the value of STEM and the reasons for its existence in our schools.

The story being told embeds STEM in the confusion about schools failing. It is the response to failure...or is it the next right step for an ever evolving and responsive public education system or can it be both? STEM is imperative because the world is changing and we need to stay ahead of it as we educate our youth. We need storytelling leaders to communicate what is happening in education.

We need storytellers who can bring together the hopes of parents and the dreams of their children and the gifts of learning and joys of friendship into the experience of schooling. We need generous storytellers who can let the success story in my school become the story of your school also. We need storytellers who can create a vision of the jobs that will be here in twenty years and excite our little ones about how to prepare for them. We need storytelling leaders who speak from the heart and soul of the work we have been called to do. We don’t anticipate that superintendents and principals will be competing with Captain America at the box office but maybe we can cause the public to remember why teachers were respected and education valued...especially now, when it is budget time across the land.

We invite each superintendent and principal to tell the story of the children and of the classroom heroes and heroines in their district. The other side will be told, too, but our story must not be left untold. It cannot be regulated to the back page while the stories about our problems are front page. If politicians and business executives understand that they do not have the skills to design their stories and hire professionals to do it, we know we are asking a lot to expect educational leaders to do it. But, that is the life we chose; we have fewer resources, more demands and meaningful work.

Please remember, storytelling isn’t lying. It is telling the truth and trying to build understanding and cultural cohesiveness. One truth is we haven’t changed fast enough. Another is that we haven’t learned fast enough. And, another is that we have yet to surmount the disadvantages that accompany poverty and race. Still another that we add to the tax burden felt by so many. But, there are other, everyday truths as well that are the stories of the children and of their accomplishments. There are stories of the teachers whose joy comes from the slightest thing and who shares that joy with a child who remembers it for a lifetime.

We want to create the best places for all students to flourish, learn academics and develop social skills, resilience, courage and character. We grow empowered learners in our schools. We grow future leaders in every walk of life. That is our story. That is what should be in the news. We need to change the stories being told. We need to become storytelling leaders.

Perhaps Jonah Sachs can be of some help.

Garcia, Ernie. April 13, 2014. Poughkeepsie Journal. P. 10A
Sachs, Jonah (2012). Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell - and live - the best stories will rule the future. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press

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