What’s Your Story?

-by Jack M. Jose

“A hundred years later, their spirit lives on,” claims the commercial for the Dodge Motor Company. In one action-packed minute we see a fast-paced parade of evolving Dodge cars engaged in a road race between the competitive Dodge brothers, “pushing each other like only a brother can.” We are left with a sense of striving to perform better, and go faster.

A Nike commercial aired during the 2016 Olympics shows transgender Olympic athlete Chris Mosier training over time. He gets asked multiple questions along the lines of “How did you know you would be strong enough to compete against men? How did you know that the team would accept you?” He responds to each, “I didn’t.” Finally he is asked, “Didn’t you ever want to give up?”

“Yeah, but I didn’t.”

Chris Mosier Nike Ad
Chris Mosier’s tenacity communicates a core value at Nike. “I didn’t quit.”

The commercials are thrilling, inspiring even. Stories are a powerful way to convey a feeling or a central tenet of a company, a brand, or even a school or community. Stories can evoke emotions and create a sense of familiarity and loyalty in a way that almost nothing else can. Stories promote achievement, action for a cause, and loyalty.

What is your institution’s story?

Who founded it? Why does it carry this name? What is important to you? What memorable people made their mark? Who do you hope to inspire?

And, most importantly, what qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

We tell stories about our workplace all the time, but which stories are those? Unfortunately, all too often, we tell the stories of someone trying to skirt the rules to their own benefit, an act of vandalism, or thoughtlessness on the part of a co-worker. We tell “war stories” to demonstrate that we are seasoned veterans, and in part to help ourselves understand the truly unusual and confusing things that happen in our day. It makes sense on an individual level, but it raises important questions about the health of your institution.

If someone was listening to our stories, and had only our words to form their opinion, what would they think about our school? If those negative incidents are the only stories we tell, what does that reveal about us? What are our priorities? What are our values?

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

At the start of each year at Gamble Montessori, we tell our story. In a nod to the key Montessori lessons, we call it the Gamble Great Lesson. You can see a short version of it, edited for the general public and to fit a predetermined theme, here. We got the idea to tell our story from Brian Cundiff, the Executive Vice President of Operations at LaRosa’s Pizzeria. We had approached him for advice on developing a system for training and supporting teachers who were new to the school. His advice formed a large part of our Teacher:Teacher mentoring program. But he started the meeting by telling us about his company’s founder, Cincinnati legend Buddy LaRosa. Buddy had one goal, Brian told us at the end, he wanted to make the customer smile. That way you knew you had made them happy.

As he explained the LaRosa’s training program to us, Brian kept returning to the story. The program starts with the story, and a related mission statement is posted in a prominent place at every store. Their customer service survey asks, “Did we make you smile?”

We knew we had to tell our story the same way. And we had to tell it repeatedly. LaRosa’s told the story over and over, in different formats. Companies brand theirs onto clothing, signs around the workplace, and advertising. Our friend Marta Donahoe, co-founder of our sister school Clark Montessori and CMStep (an international Montessori teacher training program), explained that the reason you tell a story like this over and over is because “you want them to feel it in their bones.” We understand what she means. The story should become part of who your employees are, and they should be able to embody the values of your institution.

Mentoring LaRosas

Our story is powerful. Not because I am an evocative writer, but because we tell stories of the strength and generosity of our students, and how we have humbly learned from them. It is not uncommon for teachers to cry when they hear it. (It’s not all that unusual for me to cry when I tell it.) Teachers have told me it helps them get through hard days, because they remember the bigger picture of what we are doing. Teachers from other schools approach to say how inspirational the story is, eager to return and tell their own. Our story has garnered a lot of attention in our field, and we have presented to groups how we created it. Krista and I have taught other educators how to tell their story.

The process of writing your story can be uncomfortable, but is not especially difficult.

You can do assignment #1 now, at your computer: Write about a time in your school or in your classroom when a child met or exceeded your expectations for being their best self. This could include an act of kindness, an act of social bravery, a moment of self-discovery a moment of learning, or something else.

Before you start (unless it’s too late, in which case you don’t need to hear this!): Be Brave. Be open to sharing and be open to revising your ideas until you get it right. Then find a friend, or a stranger, and share your stories with them. (We use shoulder partners in our presentation.) Watch their reactions. Ask them for their feedback. Or share them with a co-worker who knows the story. Often a person familiar with the details can tell you the part of the event that resonated with them, remember important details you left out, or point out the parts that you, the storyteller, tell with clear passion. Then tweak the story to emphasize these pieces.

You can do this now, if you have someone nearby, or keep reading and do it later.

You see, you are already telling the story of your institution every day. So why not construct it the way you want it to be told?

Starting from a story is a natural way to go about it, but you can also start from the traits you want to emphasize at your school and work backwards from there. Here is a list of possible traits to prompt your imagination:

 

Kindness Social bravery Leadership
Self-discovery Learning Changing perspective
Grace Courtesy Encouraging others
Patience Responsibility Loyalty
Forgiveness Honesty Compassion
Humility Perseverance Creativity

Of course there are others. You can find them in your school’s motto or vision and mission statements, or the core values if you have those.

Assignment #2: Working from those identified values, brainstorm stories involving your students and staff that show those traits. Then choose one and tell the long version with the extra details that help make it real. You are telling a true story, and you want them to inhabit the moment.

Some people find it easier to work in this direction, from the concepts to the stories rather than starting from the stories and identifying the values.

Gamble’s Great Lesson, which you can read here, features stories about students who exemplify grace and courtesy, who look out for each other, and who accomplished academic feats. It pays homage to the families and teachers who started the school, which is important to us. It shows how we can choose to see every event in a positive light, and that we value grit and inclusivity, and that we –time and again – rise to a challenge. Almost none of these virtues are named in the lesson. Instead they are revealed in the stories we choose to tell. This is the power of a well-chosen story – it conveys a notion far more powerfully than a vision statement or a list of core values.

Once you have assembled your stories, it makes sense to connect them with an overarching narrative or metaphor, and/or place them on a timeline. Our story does a bit of both, talking about the school as if it is a developing child, and using a timeline, which complements the idea of a child growing over time. This is a helpful structure for us, because we have been in existence a short time. I can imagine someone at an older school telling a story structured in sections based on the relevant virtue exhibited, with brief vignettes told rapidly to build a sense of the consistency of the virtues over time.

What qualities do you hope to instill in the people who work there and the people you serve?

When your Great Lesson is finished, and you have worked it out with one or more trusted editors, you must tell the story. You must set aside time, in a formal way, to sit the group down and tell them the story. This “real” telling of the story, as opposed to the video version linked in the opening paragraphs above, should include artifacts. These can be almost anything from professional pictures to trinkets from important events. Ours includes professional graduation pictures of a couple students we mention, a glamour shot of the school, a piece of spiritwear, and a grainy cell phone picture of the senior night basketball game in 2012. Yours is limited to what is easy to display as you tell the story. I sit on the floor in front of my staff, but yours doesn’t have to be. However, the telling must be formal. Tell it to your students. Tell it to your teammates. Tell it to the employees. Tell it to your advertisers. Just tell it. Regularly. We tell it at the start of each school year. Then improve it, add to it, extend it, but keep it the same at its core.

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In every institution there are stories we tell repeatedly. We have done this from the dawn of language. These span from Homeric tales of bravery told around a campfire, to slick advertisements aired during the Super Bowl. Our stories reveal the soul of the society and institutions that created them. The ones we tell over and over are the most important stories. Thursday afternoon I told it to our Teacher:Teacher Mentoring group. Tuesday before that I told it to my entire staff at our annual staff retreat. Sunday night before that I told it to a meeting of our mentors. After telling it to my staff, I invite my staff to tell it to our students.

Tell yours again and again, until your people can feel it in their bones. That is, tell it until everyone deeply understands the values it imparts; then keep telling it because it brings comfort and courage.

We would love to hear your Great Lesson. Send it to us. Do you want feedback on where to start? Just ask.