I’ve been thinking a lot about stories this fall. Earlier, I wrote for the Knowles Science Teaching Foundation on the importance of teacher stories. And I’ve been continuing to think about stories, particularly in light of what’s happening these days.
I still believe it’s vital to share our stories. Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about the danger of a single story in her TED talk, and I found the entire thing to be quite powerful. I highly recommend watching it – it’s only 19 minutes and gives a lot to think about. Some quotes:
The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity… I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
So it’s important to share our stories, but these days I feel like I’m running into two issues: 1) it’s actually really hard to tell your story honestly and 2) who’s actually listening?
It’s hard to be honest about teaching. Teaching is personal, and a lot of my self-worth is tied into whether or not I believe I am a good teacher or not. And because of this, I want others to view me as a good teacher too. I surveyed the internet (ok, my Twitter and Facebook followers) back in August about what makes “good teaching”, and that analysis is coming out with the next issue of Kaleidoscope (which will hopefully be out soon!). But because I want to view myself as a good teacher, because I want others to view me as a good teacher, what I say about my teaching gets skewed a bit.
Add on to that the audience. How I talk about my teaching to my family is different than how I talk about my teaching to my friends, which is again different based on whether that person I’m talking to either is a teacher, was a teacher, or has some other experience in education. I keep things pretty general with my family. “How’s work going?” “Oh, it’s fine. Nothing to complain about.” And yes, it is fine overall, and I recognize that I am fortunate to work in the school that I work at (relative job security and resources for an urban public school). But I tend to gloss over the nuances of teaching. My family does now recognize how much work a teacher puts in (my sister, several years ago: “Oh, now it makes sense why I got so many assignments back with just check marks in high school.”) It’s similar when I talk to my non-teacher friends. Rather than explain the nuances of teaching and educational policy (and I’ll be honest, I’m not as up-to-date on the latter as I could/should be), I keep things to what others can relate to- the funny and/or frustrating things my students said or did, the successes and challenges in interacting with coworkers and admin, the amount of grading I have to do… It would take much longer than a 5-10 min “how are things going?” conversation to unpack all that really happens in a school, and it’s exhausting. Talking about educational policy with people unfamiliar with the world of education gets complicated, and let’s face it- I’m tired.
Add on to that is the burden that I feel sometimes to present a positive view of teachers and teaching to the world at large. I am exhausted by aspects of my job, but when the prevailing sentiment seems to be “well everything would be fine if we just got rid of bad teachers”, I don’t want to give people more fuel to burn the teaching profession with. I want to defend my profession, even though there are aspects of my job that I don’t like and wish would change. I want teachers to have a voice in setting educational policies, in telling the powers that be what works and what doesn’t (because who knows better?). But to be taken seriously, I feel like care needs to be taken in how teachers present themselves to the world.
Which leads me to my second struggle. Sometimes I wonder if anyone is listening, or if this is just “preaching to the choir” and I’m stuck in the kind of echo chamber that apparently social media creates. I’m thinking about this particularly in light of the US election and the recent selection of Besty DeVos for Secretary of Education. Is anyone who has the ability to direct educational policies listening to teachers and their stories? Or are we all holding on to a single story about the other side? I can’t pretend to openly support charter schools, because I don’t. I think they have a lot of problems, particularly the lack of accountability. But I’m willing to acknowledge that some charter schools do quite well by their students, and I would love to hear about what makes those schools successful (it appears to be a balance between autonomy and accountability, where most public schools have too little autonomy and too much accountability, while most charter schools have too much autonomy and too little accountability.) I would like educational reformists to also critically examine where their reform policies work and where they don’t, and listen to the teachers in both contexts. Teaching and education are complex, but too often we (myself included) try to boil things down to one simple solution that should work for everyone.
NPR suggests reading the book that’s not for you to bridge the political divide. I’m willing to do that (also, I just love reading), but I wonder if anyone else is also doing that. You can’t force someone else to listen to your story. So I’m still wondering – how do I tell my stories honestly, and how do I deal with it when it seems like no one is listening?
But, because every time I think more about stories, I end up thinking about the Hamilton musical, I’ll leave you with the finale: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story.