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April 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 7

Leading Through Stories

Thoughtfully told stories can help leaders engage, persuade, and share wisdom with any audience.

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When I stand before a room full of teachers, I often identify with their skepticism. I remember all too well when I sat facing someone who was encroaching on my planning time and purporting to have something to tell me, teach me, or demand of me. My mind would rotate through all my tasks: tomorrow's handouts still to be copied, the sets of papers to be graded, parent phone calls to be answered—to say nothing of the minutes ticking away before I had to pick up my own children from school. I would fidget in my seat, usually an uncomfortable stackable chair. But because I considered myself polite and professional, I'd refrain from surreptitiously making lists and scoring quizzes. My neighbors often weren't so discreet.

Why Tell Tales

As a conference presenter, a director of gifted programs in a diverse school system, an assistant superintendent, a headmistress of a private school, and an interim superintendent of a small rural public school system, I've had many occasions to face a reluctant audience. I often rely on the very human pastime of storytelling. Here are some ways telling tales helps me communicate better with colleagues.

Establishing Credibility

An anecdote can show my audience I empathize with them and share their desire to make this workshop or inservice training worthwhile. It helps to reference my own experiences as a member of the group to which I'm presenting: classroom teachers, fellow administrators, even parents. Also, I keep the anecdote detailed, yet brief—a long story runs the risk of using up valuable time, making exactly the opposite of the intended point about using time productively.
For example, when presenting to teachers—the situation painted at the beginning of this article—I'd start by describing my frame of mind at a typical professional development session I attended as a teacher. "I remember how distracted I felt during those afternoons, dozens of tasks and worries in the back of my mind," I'd say. "So I understand why you want the next few hours to merit your participation." Then I'd respectfully request they suspend their own worries for the length of the workshop.
When speaking to parents, you might share an anecdote about your own parenting or tell a story involving your parents. Addressing families of gifted students, I used to share my struggles to gain access, for my early-reading son, to the upper elementary section of the school library. I wanted them to know I felt their pain. This establishes you as a partner with your audience, one who personally understands their issues.

Putting a Face on Research

All of us who took Statistics 101 know the fallacy of an "N of 1." Research that analyzes large sets of data should certainly underlie our decision making and inform our next steps in teaching. The fact remains, however, that our brains need to see a human face in the data to help us value and make sense of those findings. Then we can use our analytical skills to identify new directions on the basis of the data.
When I was an assistant superintendent, I once attended a school-based workshop on reading scores at a school with many immigrant families, led by an English teacher and team leader. Mrs. Smith distributed test results to her colleagues, then expressed her disappointment with her own class's results. She described the painstaking process she'd gone through with her students to improve their reading comprehension. Then she offered a quick profile of three hard-working students who had particularly fallen short of her expectations and how she'd drilled down into their test results to see what had happened. She realized that although Manuel, Faza, and Phuong—who were English language learners—now spoke and wrote English fluently, they didn't understand phrases like butterflies in her stomach or racking my brain. Mrs. Smith shared her resolve to teach basic figures of speech to better serve her students.
By taking a few moments to delineate this journey into data and its implications for three students, this presenter offered a powerful model to the attending teachers. They all turned to their own classes' test results with the enthusiasm of detectives, visualizing the students' faces.

Challenging Counterproductive Beliefs

For some issues, if the audience doesn't hold certain underlying beliefs, any knowledge the "expert" presents will be almost irrelevant. Stories can change your audience's belief system or reinforce a key value you suspect some teachers hold only weakly, such as the belief that all students can learn. Changing a belief is a much more challenging goal than imparting information or analyzing test results.
During my years as an educator, I collected and shared stories that demonstrated soaring achievement in students whom many had discounted. For instance, I described Chamika, a 2nd grader who had low test scores, particularly in reading, and who had joined our school system only recently. On a bus taking our group to a museum, I noticed her sitting by herself, holding a paperback romance novel on her lap, staring fixedly at its pages. I moved to the seat across from her. "Chamika," I said as I glanced surreptitiously at the dense page of text, "are you reading that?"
"Yes," she replied, "it's OK. My momma read it and said I could have it."
I looked into her face. "Why do people think you can't read?" I asked.
Chamika didn't look up. "Well, I was living with my grandma, and I wanted to live with my momma. So they gave me these tests, and even when I could keep reading, I stopped. 'Cause if school was going OK, I wouldn't move."
"I see," I said, thinking to myself, now that's metacognition.
Another story involved a girl who worked in my office after school each day. When Claudia was accepted to college, I took her out to lunch to celebrate. She described to me her difficult transition to a new country and language when her family left Central America during her middle school years.
"Did you find the SAT tests difficult?" I asked.
"Yes," she replied, "I hadn't taken algebra or geometry for several years when I took the SAT. I couldn't remember all the formulas."
"What did you do, use the process of elimination?"
"No," Claudia said, looking at me un-self-consciously, "I just reinvented them."
When I tell this anecdote, I reflect on how fortunate it was that Claudia enrolled in a school system that enabled her to progress in mathematics despite her limited English. I share such stories in hopes that when the members of my audience return to their classrooms and gaze out at their students, they will see the promise hidden in students with stony expressions like Chamika or accented English like Claudia.

Tying Your Content to Their Stories

Use your audience's stories, too. Partway through your agenda, ask your listeners to think about their own experiences with your topic, jot down their recollections, and share them with one other member of the audience. Guide participants through a process of relating their various stories to the topic you're developing. Once attendees have connected their own personal stories or those of colleagues with your message, they'll be more likely to make your message their own.
For example, at an ASCD workshop on authentic assessment, the presenter asked us to recall the best assessment we'd ever experienced as students. After we shared our remembrances, the presenter discussed how the attributes of each stellar assessment related to his framework. A decade later, I still remember the story I shared and its relationship to Understanding by Design.

Humanizing Authority

As a principal or supervisor, you carry with you authority over other people—faculty, students, parents, and school staff. The authority comes with your position and with the power that position grants you to make decisions that affect the future paths of many individuals. Sharing stories about yourself gives everyone a glimpse into your private life and reminds listeners of your common ground. It also gives you an opportunity to show humility. For example,
  • At one opening faculty meeting for a school at which I was principal, I described my discomfort at first meeting my son's future mother-in-law, with her fashionably highlighted sweep of hair and miniskirt. I even provided a picture to demonstrate why I felt so dowdy that summer. Teachers chuckled over this anecdote throughout the fall.
  • When I was appointed interim superintendent of a small rural school system, I scheduled meetings with the central office staff and the schools' faculties to introduce myself. I sensed a mood of unease in the system as a result of the superintendent's sudden departure. So as I met with each group of employees, I not only spoke about student achievement and the upcoming budget season, but also about my own connection to the county. I even brought an old black-and-white photograph showing me as a 3-year-old with relatives on a well-known local farm. I hoped to reassure the listeners that I was not a hired gun, but—like them—someone who truly cared about the future of this school system.
Self-revealing stories like these can strengthen a leader's relationship with others in the school, district, or classroom. This will serve both the leader and the listeners—from parents to subordinates—when tough decisions loom. One protocol for reducing the achievement gap calls for teachers to spend the first day of school telling students about themselves and their passion for their subjects. Some students need a connection with the teacher before they'll "work for the teacher."

Guidelines for Powerful Storytelling

It's important to keep a few tips in mind when you begin telling stories to engage a small or large crowd.

Know Your Intent

Never tell a story without a reason. For any presentation or meeting, know your goals in telling an anecdote. Write these goals down and ensure that they are appropriate. Then begin to think about stories that will move your audience toward these desired results.

Collect Stories

Once you recognize that stories will help you lead others, you begin to notice all the stories around you. Create a section of your planner or computer files for notes about situations you've witnessed or anecdotes you've heard. Don't make this task onerous, or you won't do it; just record key names and a few verbs to refresh your memory. The stories should be memorable—to you and any future audience. Don't worry about how you'll use them. Purposes will arise over time, and the stories will be at your fingertips.

Tell the Truth

Don't fabricate stories. Fabricating is unethical, and facts can be checked. Recognition can work for you if one of your listeners exclaims, "I knew that student, too!" but it can work against you if a listener recognizes an error in the story or follows up and discovers the tale can't be corroborated. Even more significant, an audience can sense the truth; it has power in the telling.

Provide Details and Avoid Abstractions

The more specific the story, the more interest and impact. Good storytelling predates good writing in human history, but it shares the same attributes. Don't say "an immigrant student," say "a 14-year-old Ethiopian boy who had been in Arlington one month." Rather than "practice social protocols," say "shake hands."

Listen to Your Story

We sometimes share an anecdote without anticipating how it might be heard by people with a range of identities. Once you've decided on a story to tell, listen to it (recording your rendition on a digital recorder) while taking on the persona of various members of your audience. Will this anecdote alienate anyone? Might a story about a mother helping with homework make fathers feel left out? Will a story about an underachieving black child unintentionally reinforce stereotypes? Determining potential issues in advance enables you to preface the story to forestall any hurtful reactions, reword a section for clarity, or omit an element that runs the risk of offending. If you have to excuse or explain the story, don't use it.

Be Genuine

I am not funny; the only times I can elicit laughter is when I am laughing at myself. So I don't try to tell jokes. I know that I'm serious and easily moved, so I share my passion and my emotion. We've all heard speakers deliver remarks that seemed to follow formulas or included "canned" jokes or passages, and we don't trust those speakers. Tell only your own stories in your own voice.

Toward the Essential Goal

Human beings respond to stories. Used selectively and thoughtfully, stories let school leaders engage groups of people in ways that help each of them meet the essential goal: success for our children.
End Notes

1 Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

2 Ferguson, R. F. (2008). Toward excellence with equity: An emerging vision for closing the achievement gap. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Kathleen F. Grove has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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