A brightly colored illustration shows  papers and shapes flying from the pages of a book.



Sharing the truth about public education is more important today than ever before. As school leaders, we tend to only tell our stories when we are asking voters for a tax increase or need to build a new school. But telling the story of the small miracles that happen every day in our public schools is something that every school board member needs to be prepared to share at a moment’s notice. Because if we do not tell the story of public education in our community, then someone else will—and it may conflict with what we know to be true.

I have been training school board members to be master storytellers at the past two NSBA annual conferences. Each year, board members have shared their truths and the stories of their districts’ profoundly important work. During our workshops, board members have shared personal stories of challenges, triumphs, and their passion for helping children. We heard from the 26-year-old board member who broke into school buses as a teen to sleep at night when he was facing family difficulties. His story of resilience and persistence touched everyone. School board members gasped as a Midwestern school board member recounted how he was shot while campaigning for his board seat. Despite facing grave danger, this board member continued to campaign, saying he believed the work of public education was that important. Every participant in those sessions had powerful stories of their passion for public education and the good work being done in their communities.

You don’t have to be a gunshot victim or be forced to take shelter on a school bus at night to have a powerful story. That’s the nice thing about storytelling. Everyone has a story. And because your story is just that—your story—it is perfect. When I work with board members, the biggest challenge is getting them to understand that their stories have value, worth, and power. The most common refrain I hear is, “Oh I don’t have a story,” or “I just live a normal, ordinary life.”

What they don’t realize is that the best stories are those that identify common events that demonstrate our passion, values, and beliefs. People can relate to those kinds of stories. There isn’t a set formula for a great story. Stories can be serious, funny, moving, sad, or any other emotion and genre that applies.

The devil is in the details

Stories are one of the most effective communication techniques that we have as leaders. When we share a personal story, we are demonstrating our authenticity, humanity, and vulnerability. We earn trust by being honest and taking a risk. A well-told story illustrates your lesson far better than bullets on a PowerPoint slide.

And the good news is that you don’t need a hundred stories in your back pocket ready to go. Typically, a well-crafted story can have several twists or interpretations that can be used to demonstrate a variety of points. When I tell the story of Monte, my 70-year-old supervising teacher during my student teaching days back in 1982, I use it to illustrate the lessons he taught me about building relationships with students. But it can also illustrate the value of having a mentor. Sometimes I use that story to comment on cross-generational relationships and learning. Every well-developed story is rich with multiple lessons, outcomes, and concluding morals of the story.

There is a saying that “the devil is in the details.” Those details make the difference between an easily forgotten story and a memorable story. When I tell my “Monte” story, I mention that he drove his 1959 Ford Edsel the distance of 1/10th of a mile to school each day. After decades in the Colorado sun, the car was a sun-bleached pale rusty red color. And after my first week of student teaching, he surprised me with a 6 a.m. phone call on Saturday giving me incredible feedback on my teaching. But after several hours on the phone that feedback was usually followed with, “Would you mind stopping at the liquor store and picking up a case of Schlitz tall boys and dropping it off at my house?” Those details about his car or the beer are not essential to the story’s lesson. However, they help paint a vivid picture in the listener’s mind. To prove my point, I always quiz my participants about these details hours after they have heard them. Invariably people remember those details as well as the moral of the story.

Stories that are rich in detail give the listeners multiple opportunities to connect with and relate to the storyteller. In my “Monte” story, listeners might relate to the Ford Edsel if they are car fanatics. Or they might relate to the Schlitz reference if they are beer lovers. Maybe someone had a significant mentoring relationship like mine that gives them a “hook” that draws them into the story. The more details you provide, the more opportunities you give the audience to connect with you. You never know who you will help with your story, or who you will inspire and strengthen. And you never know what aspects of the story will resonate with different people. But you can be assured that your story will help and inspire people who may be dealing with a similar challenge.

A piece of paper in a typewriter shows the words "Everyone Has A Story."



Tips for good storytelling

While this isn’t a high school English class on story writing, there are a few basic structural considerations that every good story follows.

The set up: Think about the typical opening paragraph in a news story. This is where you tell the who, what, where, when, and how (as appropriate). Details further add richness and make the story memorable, so think about the five senses. What did you see? What smells were present? What could you hear? Was there a taste in your mouth? These are all details that create a vivid picture in the listener’s mind.

Tension: Stories often recount a challenge that we have encountered. What was the obstacle or issue that you were dealing with? Building up and describing the tension in the situation helps draw the listeners in and keeps them on the edge of their seats.

The resolution: How did you resolve the challenge? Was there a surprise ending? Were you ultimately successful? Or was there a failure from which you learned something? Bring closure to the actual events of the story.

The learning: What was the moral of the story? What did you learn? In what ways did you grow and develop from the incident?


Tell a story about your district

Until now, I have been using the two types of story perspective interchangeably. You can tell your own personal story that reveals your own values, beliefs, and priorities. Or you can take a more institutional perspective and tell a story about your school district. Earlier, I shared some examples about two school board members and their personal stories as well as my “Monte” story. Personal stories are easier to tell, since they are our own. We’ve lived those stories, so it becomes a matter of adding details, tension, resolution, and the learning. And when you tell that story, you can’t get it wrong because it is your own personal life experience.

But what about stories of your schools? What kinds of stories are appropriate and interesting? Here are a few that might inspire you to come up with your own stories.

As a superintendent in a high-poverty school district in the Chicago suburbs, I told a story to our new teachers each year of how the work that we did was so important to our children and families. We were not just teaching literacy and math. We were there to end poverty. I gave examples of how our work was different than the work of educators in high-wealth districts. In the stories, I tried to create a sense of mission, passion, and altruism.

I will always remember a video presentation created by a teacher in our bilingual school. The teacher was sharing the successes of our students, but the most powerful story came from an African American first-grader. He read from a Spanish children’s book and then discussed it in Spanish. He may not have been speaking perfect Spanish, but it was far better than I would ever speak.

To demonstrate our commitment and respect for our non-English speaking community, I shared the story of how I always knew when our bilingual district newsletter arrived in people’s mailboxes. My phone would ring, and the anonymous caller would remind me that this is America and English is the official language. It was an opportunity to explain (patiently) that our community is diverse and that this is a strength of our community. Having a bilingual newsletter was one way that we respected everyone in the community. We believed that when all parents are informed about the school in their native language, then they can better help their children succeed—which is our goal.

One of my graduate students who is a teacher in eastern Kentucky shared the story of the time her house and farm were destroyed by a tornado. She had to come to the realization that she was now “homeless,” and she and her family were now sleeping and showering at school. That was when she learned that “school” was not just a place where children learned to read. “School” was “home,” and the staff and students were “family.” She came to appreciate that school is also “home” for many students—something she had never considered. What kind of home are we creating for our students? That was such a powerful message that reminds us about the central role that our public schools play in our communities.

Story inspiration

One of the most overlooked sources for school district stories is the school district budget. Spreadsheets filled with thousands of individual cells for revenues and expenditures, sources of funding, grant allocations, and the myriad details become understandable when told as a story. The district budget is the story of a community’s hopes, dreams, and aspirations for its children. It is a story told through numbers instead of words, but it is a story. When you are presenting the annual budget for adoption, be sure to interpret it through storytelling, and you will find you get stronger support from the community.

Telling a story based on a singular event probably comes easier because we are drawing from our own life experiences. But the principle is the same for “institutional” storytelling about our districts. I could give you data, test results, charts, and graphs showing the progress of our bilingual program. And I may well show you that data as part of an overall presentation. But I am willing to bet that you will only remember the video of the first-grade child reading and speaking in pretty good Spanish as evidence of a successful program. Your opinion of the entire program’s success or failure is likely to be determined by that one child and his Spanish language fluency. Tell stories that are specific, detailed, and illustrate your point.

Stories have been the vehicle for humans to transmit our culture, civilization, and history for centuries. Stories also are one of the most effective communications techniques available to speakers who wish to make an impact. Become a great storyteller and you also will become a great communicator and leader.

Raymond A. Lauk (raymond.lauk@eku.edu) is an associate professor at Eastern Kentucky University, Richmond.


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