If my own experience in schools is any indication, there are usually only two regularly occurring opportunities for large numbers of staff members to gather together. One is the onsite staff meeting, usually scheduled towards the beginning of the week. The other is the more highly-anticipated “debriefing session” held offsite at the end of the week, usually at a local restaurant or public house.
These two cultural events differ in terms of both content and structure. The first is usually built around policies, procedures and protocols—hoping that we can get everyone on the same page. The second is keyed to our emotional life as educators and the official vision of school is actually played out in our real lives.
For a number of reasons, information in the traditional staff meeting flows in one direction. The less formal version is more free-flowing and dynamic, involving many voices and opinions.
While our formal staff meetings tend to be stilted and stiff, our end-of-the-week gatherings are almost always more vibrant, emotionally-charged and colourful. The first is structured around a rather prescriptive agenda while the second is energized through stories and storytelling!
Now, although I’ve often had a secret desire to do so, I’m not suggesting that we move our formal staff meetings to the pub. What I am suggesting, however, is that the same opportunity for storytelling that makes those less formal experiences so vibrant and meaningful could have the same effect if introduced more regularly into our formal meetings.
When you think about it, we are walking storybooks. All of us. And whether we realize it or not, we’re constantly (and, often, unconsciously) calling on our stories to connect the unfamiliar with what and who we already know, to help make sense of a constantly changing world and to support the creation a sense of personal, professional and organizational identity.
Stories are the key to unlocking so much about who and why we are.
Acknowledging the power of stories is one thing. Using that power is another.
In my own practice, I’ve found that when I’ve started a meeting or a facilitated conversation by asking people to remember a time when…, the tenor of the room quickly changes. The simple act of recalling a moment from their own lives automatically creates an emotional connection. You see it in the eyes, in the face and, eventually in the body language that participants use. The simple invitation to remember engages people in a very powerful way and, in a sense, personalizes what is to follow. And when what follows honours those stories, builds on them and uses them to make connections and find patterns, a sense of group identity results.
Our personal stories of success, frustration—even our stories of loss and pain—hold so much of what we value, what we believe and what we hope for. To miss the opportunity to share those stories is to miss the opportunity to understand and communicate with each other on a much deeper level.
What might happen if our vision for building school culture was predicated on the simple act of telling our story. How might that affect the way we gather as colleagues, the interactions that we have with our students and even the way that we look at engaging our parent community.
As writer Tom King asserts, “The truth about stories is that’s all we are.” The words are his, but the emphasis is mine.
Next: Some very powerful ways to build a staff meeting around story.