Storytelling for Education Advocacy
On Friday, July 28, 2017, thousands of California teachers participated in the third annual California Teachers Summit, held simultaneously in 35 locations around the state. I was honored to be one of two speakers delivering at "edtalk" for the educators gathered at the San Francisco State University convening of the summit. Here is the speech I prepared; the delivered version was slightly different in phrasings and included some impromptu changes.
It's an honor to be here speaking to so many teachers coming together for a day of learning and reflection on what we do in classrooms and schools. For the next 10 minutes or so, I want to pull back to a broader view and consider why and how we must engage with our community and our policy makers. We know that an equitable high-quality public education system must be a higher priority in California. And we, as teachers and as citizens, must take responsibility for making that shift happen. So my questions for you today are:
What stories will you share to help us bring about change?
How can you use those stories to advocate for our students, our profession, and public education?
In politics and public relations, they say that if you're not out there making the argument, you're losing the argument. And borrowing a theme from the musical Hamilton, I might also ask: who tells your story? That's not a rhetorical question. There are some powerful and wealthy interests out there investing in the story of failing public schools and ineffective teachers. Their story will not hold up against the reality of our work, if we're vigilant enough and dedicated enough to get our stories out there. We really are better together.
There are some education stories that are already better known than others. Have you heard the story about that one awful teacher? Tell me if this situation sounds familiar.
You're meeting someone for the first time, someone who doesn't work in schools, and when they out that you're a teacher, this person tells you: "That is so wonderful. We need more good teachers. My children have had mostly good teachers, but there was this one..." And for the next five minutes, 10 minutes, you hear about that one.
I won't even listen to that story any more. Hearing it won't help me, or help anyone else. Unfortunately, the focus on the negative seems to be tied to something in our psychology, perhaps our survival instincts. Psychological studies have demonstrated what we can observe on our own here: negative experiences form stronger impressions than positive experiences. It takes multiple positives to offset one negative. That's where our stories come into play.
My particular interest in sharing positive stories about public education goes back about ten years. I was spending one Saturday each month at the Stanford National Board Resource Center, serving as a candidate support provider for teachers seeking National Board Certification. That work meant that I was meeting wonderful teachers from all over the Bay Area. I got to talk with them about teaching, look at videos from their classroom, see their students' work. Our job was to help them with the certification process, but unfortunately, there were also times when our job was to help them think of ways to evade detection when they wanted to offer enriching lessons that didn't fit their school's pacing guides and canned curriculum. One piece of advice I remember was for elementary teachers to enlist the help of the principal's secretary, and find out when the principal would be off campus, so you could sneak in some art or music or science or social studies lessons.
These were problems that arose in response to No Child Left Behind, and those of us dealing with them and hearing about them felt the need to tell these stories, in hopes of correcting the problem. Some of us formed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers, and we endeavored to bring stories and research together, to inform and improve education policy. And it worked—to a very limited extent. We did find an audience, organize events, present at conferences—and we did see our work cited in the official legislative analysis pertaining to some education bills.
Working with that network also gave me opportunities to connect with teachers all over the state, and with each opportunity that came along, I found myself with more examples of positive stories to tell about public education. Just as I asked you a moment ago, I was asking myself: what stories will I share, and how can I put them to productive use?
So, to make a long story short, I set out to write a book. I spent the 2014-15 school year visiting over 70 schools, and talking with over 100 teachers. I blogged about the experience as I went along, and then after more than a year of writing and editing, the book finally came out. The title is Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools.
Most of the book is descriptive, and openly celebrating great teaching and schools, rather than dispassionately evaluating them. I wanted to describe to readers what it is that makes teachers not only effective, but also inspirational, what feeds their motivation and optimism. My goal is to induce readers to internalize and share these examples, and add their own to our public discourse. We need a critical mass of educator-advocates making a difference around the state—doing better together.
Let me tell you about one of the teachers featured in the book, Martha Infante. Martha has been teaching middle school history and social studies classes in South Central Los Angeles for nearly 20 years. As a teacher in Los Angeles Unified, show knows what it means to weather the storms of state and district dysfunction, underfunding, and disrespect. She also consistently highlights her students' intelligence and skills, their wisdom and kindness, hopes and ambitions. I first encountered Martha through that storytelling. She started a blog called "Don't Forget South Central," and I came across her writing on Twitter. Within a few months, we recruited Martha to be a contributing blogger for Accomplished California Teachers. About a year later, she was summoned to tell her story to a Congressional authorized commission on educational excellence and equity. Later she was appointed to work on the issue of teacher evaluation for California's Educator Excellence Task Force, and eventually, she was co-directing the revision process of the "Greatness by Design" report that the task force originally produced.
For Martha, telling stories is a habit, and pattern of advocacy with an overall theme and objective of equity, and it has yielded more and more opportunities to tell more stories, and eventually to influence education policy as a classroom teacher. We can't all be Martha. But if we all can resolve to do a fraction of what Martha has done we can multiply the impact of our stories.
I've also had some opportunity to learn something from the reactions to my book. First of all, in the process of writing it, I was surprised by the frequent and heartfelt thanks that people expressed when I visited their schools. It wasn't because of me, but rather, it was a reflection of how many of us are yearning to hear positive stories about public education. We want to see our work, our success and our struggle, reflected in an understanding and supportive light.
Another instructive reaction to the book involved a friend who's familiar with many schools in Oakland, and she asked me if I had visited any for my book. I told her that I had spent a day at Brookfield Elementary School, and she looked surprised. Why Brookfield? she asked with an inflection that suggested a low opinion of the school. And I answered that I went to Brookfield precisely because of the reaction she had just shown me.There are no school ratings and no headlines that publicize the decades of excellent teaching and school leadership my friend Tammie Adams contributed to Brookfield. Too often for the general public, a school's failures are assumed, while its strengths remain almost invisible.
After a year of visiting schools around California, I firmly believe that we can find sparks of excitement and dedication in every single school. I only visited about 70 campuses. But here in this room, we must certainly represent another 70, or 170, or 270. The California Teacher Summit is connecting teachers from thousands of schools around the state. We must collectively take up the challenge to advocate for public education policy that puts equity front and center, that strengthens the teaching profession for the long term benefit of our students and communities.
Achieving equity will mean adding money and resources where they're needed, not just re-distributing the already inadequate funding. Even after passing Propositions 30 and 55, and even with the local control funding formula, California's overall school spending is still among the lowest in the nation. And in some cases, our neediest districts are tackling more challenging tasks with budgets containing half as much per-pupil spending as their wealthier neighbors.
To correct that imbalance, presentations of data and logical arguments should perhaps be enough to carry the day, but the fact is: stories matter. And while I noted that negative experiences are stronger than positive, I've also observed that negative portrayals of inequity lead to disengagement. The challenge is to use positive stories to highlight an opportunity for Californians to make things right for all kids.
So I ask you again: What stories will you share to improve public education, and how will they get out to an audience?
The stories don't have to be dramatic—just vivid or unique examples of who we are and what we do for kids. I tried in my book to help readers see and hear a San Jose classroom as delighted second-graders dump increasing amounts of salt into tubs of water, trying to make eggs float to the top. Their teacher, Alicia DeRollo, is clearly an effective, knowledgeable, and caring individual; she also happens to be a former union president and a current member of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. In another second grade classroom, in Pasadena, teacher Dave Berk has dance breaks with his students during class. It just looks like a fun activity, but he's a National Board Certified Teacher making informed choices that support his students neuromotor development. And what can we learn from San Francisco Community School, just four miles away, where teachers are the leaders of an alternative public school serving grades K-8? And how did it come about that Merced High School teachers secured thousands of dollars in grants from CTA's Institute for Teaching in order for their students to produce original historical studies and museum exhibits?
Show people what we do. You can go old school with letters to the editor, phone calls to your legislators. Speak with them in person at town halls or at their offices. You can go digital by using social media to highlight the positives in public education. You can start a blog, or if you want to make it easier and with less commitment, submit guest blog posts to an existing blog. Start using podcasts, or create a YouTube channel. And if you don't know how to do some of these, learn!
Go a step further by being active in your union. Make sure union leaders are hearing the positives as well, not only the negatives. Take a leadership role in your union, and then make sure your union is engaged with its members and the broader community.
And beyond those communication strategies, the best approach might be to bring the community into school, and bring school out to the community. Invite community members and organizations to educational events at schools, and engage students around work with an authentic purpose, to be shared with a public audience.
The way I see it then, we have to collectively saturate public spaces with positive stories about public education to offset each negative story that's out there. And by positive stories, I don't mean we ignore challenges or lie about failures. Instead, we frame those challenges in ways that reflect our core values. We don't end our stories with failure, but rather bring our experience and expertise to illuminate a way out of failure, a path to transformation and success. Isn't that what we do in the classroom for our students? Let's bring it out of the classroom. Share your stories. Make a difference.
Image credit: Pablo