Using Stories to Drive Change

October 24, 2019

Using Stories to Drive Change

By Chief Policy Officer Kristan Van Hook

Every educator has a story to tell. The challenge is how to tell that story in a powerful way that engages listeners and connects to the change you want to see.

Data and evidence are essential in making the case for change. But if we want our message to stick, we need to tell the story behind the numbers in a compelling and concise way. We need to tap into the power of personal story and testimonial.

I saw this firsthand as the Indiana legislature worked to pass a bipartisan bill that provided funding to districts to create teacher leadership positions. As policymakers debated the bill, teachers from across the state shared their experiences as teacher leaders and how the creation of these roles transformed teaching and learning in their schools. Some educators' testimonies stuck with lawmakers longer than others, and there were common themes in those most effective stories.

The most important one was simple: Their stories were personal AND had a purpose. The most compelling educators were able to share objectively how the challenges they went through made them a better teacher and offered tangible solutions for decision-makers. Listeners remembered the message because they remembered the story that drove their point home.

For example, Mr. Weaver was a veteran science teacher in northern Indiana who took on a teacher leadership role in his final years of teaching. He and his fellow teachers had seen student achievement levels in their school drop. In response, the district invested in teacher leaders to work with principals to support classroom teachers. Student achievement grew significantly, lifting the district from a D to a B on the state rating system.

These results made a strong case for the impact of teacher leader roles, but this story was memorable because Mr. Weaver captured how the experience changed him, his colleagues, and his students. He described how being a teacher leader transformed his teaching and gave him a renewed sense of purpose, saying, "My best years of teaching were my last years."

Good storytelling is a skill, and stories provide more than just entertainment. Stories are essential to getting your point across to decision-makers who control school funding and policies. Equally important are the stories we tell our colleagues. These stories create a shared understanding of why we do this work, highlight the impact on students, underscore the changes we need to make to reach our goals, and strengthen our commitment to work together.

What have I seen as core elements of a story that drives change?

Offer concrete solutions. Decision-makers know how hard teaching can be, and they want to hear how they can make improvements. I have been in meetings with legislators where teachers talk about challenges they face without connecting those very real issues to policies or practices that could make it better. It is critical to think through what changes or solutions you want to propose and be concrete about actions that decision-maker could take to respond.

Stay on track. Start your story in a powerful way, and be concise and direct. Engage readers or listeners quickly and value their attention. Your story should reinforce the point you are making and not wander off into descriptions of everything happening in the school.

Acknowledge and describe struggles, and show how you have grown from those. Listeners emotionally connect with personal experience that is authentic and relate to lessons learned through overcoming challenges. A good story connects your personal experience with the specific change or policy that you are advocating.

Share with a purpose. Good storytelling can have multiple purposes, and in crafting your story, think about who you are speaking with and what response you seek. Your goal in telling the story could be to motivate a specific action, such as funding decisions or policy changes. Or you might tell your story to build relationships and stronger connections within your school community.

Here are five steps to telling your personal story in order to build a shared commitment to action:

      1. Identify the change you want to see, whether it is coaching and support for teachers, more opportunities for collaboration, additional resources for an initiative that is supporting students, or a shift in the culture. You may want to strengthen a commitment to teamwork and better connect with colleagues. Be clear on the action you want your listeners to take or the response you are looking for.

      2. Marshall the evidence. Gather data and information illustrating the need for, and the potential impact of, your proposed change or initiative. By sharing how this change or improvement impacts student achievement, teacher practice, or other school goals, you provide listeners with the data – qualitative or quantitative – that proves the benefits.

      3. Share your personal experience. Storyteller Marshall Ganz describes the development of your personal story in three parts:

        • Story of Self: Explain why you care, when you began to care, and why you are focused on this issue above others.

        • Story of Us: Why should your listener care? What is their connection to this issue? What values do we share and how can we make change together?

        • Story of Now: What is the outcome you seek to achieve, and why it is important to make this happen now?

      4. Adapt your story for your audience, whether policymakers, community members, or colleagues in your building. In sharing your story, it is critical to introduce your proposed change in relation to shared values and goals you have with that person or that particular audience.

      5. Understand who the decision-makers are, and who else shares your goal. Who has the power to make this change happen? What is it that they value and how do you connect your proposal to these shared values and goals? It is critical to understand what the people you are talking with have the power to control – and, just as importantly, what they do not control. Equally important is to identify and connect with others who share your goal and can help to build momentum for action.

Educators are well positioned to share their stories and create momentum for change. But in order to build a commitment to action, decisions need to be brought to life for listeners and connected to values we share. Storytelling is an essential skill in reaching listeners' hearts and minds – and I know educators' stories will continue to be a key driver of better education policies and practices.