Storytelling as a First Step Toward Improvement

August 21, 2017

Kris Williams, School Development Publications Analyst

“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” – Dr. Howard Gardner, professor Harvard University

“Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others.” – Peter Forbes, photographer and author

Stories Connect a Community – Schools are a Form of Community

Throughout history and across cultures, storytelling has played a key role in keeping members of a community connected to their history, values, and ongoing challenges. For those that enter into a new community, or that are attempting to understand a community from afar, the stories told by its members often provide incredible insight. Schools are both situated within communities and operate as small communities themselves, so I’d argue that teachers and school leaders should be intentionally using storytelling as a strategy. When done well, storytelling can help initiate improvement efforts by building shared vision, appropriate urgency around important work, and clear connections with external partners and stakeholders.

Many staff at New Tech Network (NTN) schools have likely experienced the strategic use of storytelling in the early phases of their work with our organization. New Tech Network helps schools implement a set of principles and practices aimed at preparing all students for the rigors of both college and career. This work is messy and complicated, with challenges far beyond what any technical trainings or resources can solve. Because of the complex and adaptive nature of school change, our work with school teams often begins by helping them establish an organizational purpose and mission. This almost always involves some form of storytelling, both as a tool to help the group calibrate around what brought them to this place and to help describe the future they’re aiming to create for students. Connecting with those stories can be a powerful experience for staff.

Unfortunately, schools seem to rarely take advantage of this storytelling strategy when trying to identify and solve problems later on in their organizational lifecycle. Why? If storytelling helped them move forward early in their organizational development, what’s keeping schools from pulling additional benefits from that approach? Perhaps it’s as simple as helping them see when and how to leverage their stories appropriately.

Identifying Storytelling Opportunities

Most people enjoy hearing and telling stories, often as a form of entertainment or as a tool for strengthening interpersonal connections. Generally, however, it’s not a practice that we associate with problem solving or our day-to-day work needs. To change that perception amongst school teams, we need to identify the kinds of school-based opportunities that might benefit most from this approach. Here are a few examples to consider:

  • Change in School Leadership – Think about how powerful it would be for staff to share their school’s story with an incoming principal. Imagine the insights and connections created for that new principal.
  • Hiring New Teaching Staff – Just like a new principal, a new teacher could also benefit from learning the story of the school they’re joining. Consider how storytelling could be part of an intentional process for bringing any new staff into your school community.
  • New Student and Parent Orientation – Check out this example of the Satellite Center in St. Charles, Louisiana, using storytelling as a way to introduce their new students to the school.
  • Building Community Partnerships – Here’s a video created by the Samueli Academy in Santa Ana, California, to help share their story with their community.
  • Identifying Areas of Needed Improvement

In each of the first four examples, someone is being introduced to the school as a new member of the community. Given the connection between storytelling and community (see Peter Forbes’ quote at the top), it would make sense to intentionally build in an opportunity for each group to learn the story of the organization as part of their induction into the school’s community. In fact, many schools may already include this step in some form. There may be a “school history” section of the employee handbook, an “about us” page on your website, or maybe even a short story that you tell to all newcomers that helps them understand what makes you unique (i.e. “We adopted PBL as our instructional method three years ago, after joining the New Tech Network. We were looking for a way to better prepare our students for college and the demands of today’s careers, which led us to New Tech.”). However, even if these practices of storytelling for initiation into the school’s community are already in place, most schools could benefit from revisiting how well they’re leveraging storytelling in these kinds of situations.

Story of Us, Story of Now

What happens even less frequently at schools, but holds great potential, is the use of storytelling to help initiate an improvement effort as represented by the fifth example. At the recent launch of NTN’s first Sustainability and Continuation Community (SCC) cohort, each of the participating schools used a storytelling approach to describe the path that the school has taken as a member of the network. Borrowing from Marshall Ganz’s writing about the power of public narratives, we called this first story, “The Story of Us.”  The Story of Us is useful in that it asks the storytellers to describe a significant challenge, a key choice, and an impactful outcome from the group’s history. This highlighting of key moments surfaced different perspectives on key moments from the past, while also helping the group (re)connect to the organizational mission.

Following the Story of Us activity, we then asked the participants to describe “The Story of Now” for their school. They shared where they are today as an organization, including important characters and challenges that are influencing their situation in some way. For their Story of Us examples, schools described the initiatives or context that helped launch their New Tech work.  They talked about important leaders or early supporters of the work, as well as some of the big challenges that they had to overcome. For their Story of Now, patterns across the stories from each school included the need to help increase understanding of their school’s attributes within their local community and to better ensure that all student needs are being met.

By sharing these stories, the school teams were not only able to calibrate with co-workers about their shared understanding of their school’s past and present, they also created an entry point for other school teams to better understand their context and needs.  Each school team was able to see opportunities for collaboration across the similarities of the stories that were told. They also heard examples that were unique and different from their own, both in contextual details and in perspectives. Our hope is that this activity provided a solid first step toward creating a community that truly supports its members in efforts of improvement.  It certainly seemed to provide momentum for the more rigorous work that followed, as schools began identifying a potential improvement focus through the use of fishbone and driver diagram tools.

As each school has returned from that launch and is starting or preparing to start the new year, our hope is that the stories continue to be useful for helping the rest of their school community understand their identified focus and process for improvement. Rather than attempt to recreate the fishbone and driver diagram activities locally, telling The Story of Us and The Story of Now might be just enough to give everyone a common understanding of what driving the improvement efforts to come. Save the detailed diagramming for those that want to more deeply understand or assist with the details of how the work will move forward.

I’d encourage any school to consider how the use of storytelling or narratives could help to make their community more accessible to others. When making your story public, you open up new opportunities to connect and learn, making real communities out of our networked connections. By improving together as a networked community, just imagine the new stories that you’ll be able to tell.

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