What Stories Do Our Schools Choose to Tell? | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

Let’s get right to the point: Everything you do in your school tells a story.

Every curricular decision, every hire, every budget line item, every communication, every policy — every single aspect of the way students experience your school defines what you value most, what you think is most important, and, in the aggregate, the story that people in your school community consume and share. 

And my sense is, most schools don’t fully grasp that concept.

I’ll never forget one opening day email that my son got from his high school principal. You would think that the first communication of the year would be peppered with “We missed you” or “We’re so excited for this school year” or “Here’s all the great new stuff we have in store for you.” Instead, after a couple of date and time reminders, the last line read “And we want to make sure we get the year off to a good start, so please review the dress code policy so you’re not in violation on opening day.”

That tells a story, no? 

And honestly, most of the stories schools tell are about order and “success.” I’ve walked literally hundreds of school hallways where the most prominent features were code of conduct posters (no cell phones, no eating, must have a hall pass, etc.) Peek inside classrooms and more often than not desks are in rows facing the front with supplies and books neat and tidy in their appointed spaces. Student handbooks that are chock full of rules in neat outline form are reviewed. 

In the entryways, the signboard out front, and sometimes even hanging from the rooftops are reminders of AP scores or college acceptances, honor rolls, and merit scholars. Trophies and championship banners overflow in glass casings, promoting a winning culture.

And then there’s my favorite “story” of all: the multi-million dollar JumboTron that towers over the football field. Any question as to what story that tells?

Undoubtedly, the most powerful story being written about your school is the one that your students are telling when they get home. If those are stories of boredom, compliance, irrelevance, or a lack of connection, no amount of banners or technology or “success stories” will overcome that. 

All of this raises some thorny questions. 

Do you know what the dominant storyline is in your community when it comes to what students and others are saying about your school?

Are the stories you are trying to tell coherent with some larger articulation of what exactly your commitments are to the children you serve?

And do you realize you have a choice as to what story you tell?

A few years ago, I was working with a principal of a very “high performing” high school in Massachusetts who had grown tired of the stress and narrowness of the traditional story of success in his school. One day, after years of promoting “achievement” and test results on his blog, he radically changed direction. “Don’t get me wrong,” he told me, “that’s great if you’re a Merit Scholar Semi-Finalist. But that’s not getting any space in my blog from now on.” Instead, he decided to choose to tell different stories, ones of kids doing good work in the world, having an impact on their communities, and pursuing their own pathways to mastery. 

What he realized is that nothing will change uniformly in practice without significant change in the story he chose to tell, one that more closely aligned and cohered with an aspirational vision based on what almost all agree is truly important: meaningful, relevant, lasting learning that engages kids and makes a difference in their lives and the lives of others. 

Who wouldn’t want to tell those stories?

On April 20, my colleague Homa Tavangar and I are holding a free webinar on “Storytelling for Change: Tools and Strategies to Shift the Narrative of Education.” Go to https://bigquestions.institute/storytelling to register.

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future.In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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