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The Cave Wall

Since the beginning of time people have been telling stories. I used to hate when my students would start essays or stories in this way. I thought that perhaps we could narrow down the focus of a writing piece a bit more than the whole of human history. But in this case, it's true. In a Princeton Publication titled, "The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Culture and Social History of a Genre", Jack Zipes stated that, "humans have been telling stories since we had the ability to speak, and potentially by forms of sign language even before that". Storytelling was a way to mark important occasions in the lives of our cave dwelling ancestors. They discussed the triumphant stories of their hunts or to warn one another about the potential dangers that they faced.

It wasn't until we discovered the Chauvet Caves in France, that we saw a written account of these ancient stories. 36,000 years ago cave people wrote on a cave wall to tell the story of a violent volcanic eruption. I find it comforting that a story told 36,000 years ago is still being studied and interpreted by people today. This story is being studied by people of a generation that is able to explore the stars. That is a legacy. That lasts.

Our world now has a lot of story telling going on, perhaps too much. Anyone can grab their phones and immediately tell a story about the most mundane moments of their lives. And while this may seem like a plague on society and definitely our students, it also provides us an opportunity. More storytelling means more communication. Unfortunately it doesn't mean enhanced communication. Telling a story doesn't mean that we are telling a story well.

Schools can tell better stories.

Perhaps the first thing that every school needs to recognize is that they are telling a story whether they want to or not. And I don't mean the passing stories that we tell at graduation or the ones on our social media platforms. They are the stories that we put on the cave wall. They are the stories that endure long after everyone forgets everyone's names. We tell stories every day by the way that we treat people and the way that we make them feel. We tell stories about what we teach and how we teach it. Our students take those stories and bring them home to tell them to their families around the dinner table. They tell them to their friends on the bus and to their own kids when they grow older.

Why do we need to tell better stories?

Let's start with an example about an issue that is very important to me: educator wellness. Teachers are leaving the profession at alarming rates. Schools are unable to fill those vacancies with quality candidates. The common language that we use with the teaching shortage is a bit misguided. The problem hasn't happened all of a sudden. And while Covid-19 did impact teacher retention, the issue was already urgent. The issue stems from the reality that we have been telling the wrong story, and we have been telling it for far too long.

Lack of trust, consistency, communication and autonomy are among the many reasons for why teachers are leaving the profession. These are also the reasons that are keeping young people for entering the classroom. These issues lead to burnout, decision fatigue, depression and vicarious trauma. The departure of teachers who have simply had enough is causing our education to face an unfortunate paradox.

We have a great need for teachers. That makes current educators extremely valuable. But we don't value them in ways that extend beyond words. This is a sign that we aren't telling the story that we think we are.

Bosses see what they do and view them as a series of actions to complete. Leaders see the link between them as a common visionary thru-line. Great leaders see what they do as an opportunity to communicate shared values. They see a storyline.

These are the stories that connect and inspire. That is when the story becomes our story.

But telling a good story is not always easy. Every day teachers, leaders and schools have a lot to do and even more to worry about. The collective bandwidth of a school is constantly being tested. That fact is often a reason for 'why we can't' explore new directions. In the case of storytelling, it is the exact reason for 'why we should'.

Schools must be designed to last. They are in the business of making impacts that are both for both now and for always. The legacy of school is more than just the building it is in or of any one person who works there.

That is why it is important that stories are greater than the sum of their parts. The collective impact of the components of a great story is emotional, mental, physical and even spiritual. Stories scratch our collective itch for adventure and discovery. They fulfill our human needs for connection, purpose and authenticity. In other words, the stories that we tell confirm the meaning of what we do. Without meaning, people will not feel the value that they need.

A well-crafted story can reawaken the previously dormant. Stories can spark ideas, dreams and perspectives that we didn't know that we had. Stories are designed to challenge our current status and change the future for the better.

How can we tell better stories?

Think of the worst story you have read, heard or seen. What made that story so bad? Bad stories are boring stories. They say nothing and go no where. Often those are the stories that we tell. The result is boredom and lack of inspiration

We need to tell better stories.

It is my intention to explore what makes bad stories bad and what makes good stories good. I will then analyze the ways that these storytelling fundamentals can and should impact the way that we run schools and classrooms.

To frame this exploration, future posts will be grouped into one of the following five impact elements of scholastic storytelling:

  • Theme - what is a school's mission, vision and values? How do they live out in our school communities?

  • Characters - who are our people? What is their journey? How do they grow?

  • Conflict - how do we approach conflict? How do we overcome it? How do we heal? How do we grow?

  • Setting - how do we create the space needed to find feelings of success, value and belonging?

  • Plot - what is our plan?

My hope is that this quest will result in schools telling better stories that will have a lasting legacy for every student and person who calls it a home.

We are writing on the cave wall.

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