The Power of Story

I loved reading my students’ writing, but one assignment in particular always brought out the most interesting reflections from my students.

The writing assignment asked students to wrestle first with this claim—“The thing about humans is that they are constantly comparing themselves to one another”—before moving on to the idea that with few exceptions, we are “people who [are] wired up so that something outside [ourselves] tells [us] who [we are]” (both quotations from Donald Miller’s, Searching for God Knows What).

That’s a lot to consider, but in class, when we kept the conversation focused on how this might apply to the literature we covered throughout the year, we not only found this idea to be true, but we also found this truth to be much more tolerable when applied to anyone other than ourselves. It seemed much easier to see that Huck Finn believed in half-truths and bald faced lies throughout his story than it was to ask whether we have treated others as less than human for the same reasons. Likewise, it seemed much easier to condemn the community that shuns Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter than to look at the reasons we accept or reject people today.

After talking about how stories shaped some of the characters we met throughout the year, we shifted the focus onto ourselves and asked: “What is your story? Who are you listening to? How is that going?”

Despite the relative discomfort caused by bringing this all up in class, my students overwhelmed me with their responses as they wrote about taking care of their families, setting goals to make people smile daily, and how exhausting it is to try to keep everyone thinking that everything is going great in their lives. Many wrote about clinging to the values that had been instilled in them. More than a few wrote about the relief of not having to be known as “the funny guy” or “the quiet one” after high school.

What shapes your story?

If we are truly wired up so that something outside of us tells us who we are, we need to ask ourselves the same questions I posed to my students. We need to identify the story we are living out. We need to identify the voices who we are letting in, the voices that influence on our journey. And we owe it to ourselves to honestly ask how that is going.

To say the least, that’s not easy.

There are certainly no shortage of voices that we could let in as educators. And with all those voices out there, if you don’t know which ones to listen to, you’re going to try to please them all. (Here’s a secret: That doesn’t work out well.)

Educators and students are labeled in all sorts of ways. Whether or not those labels are fair, whether or not those labels are accurate, the reality is that labels are there; they have a real power to influence us. It’s up to us to choose what gets fed into our story and what’s left on the cutting room floor.

The story can get distorted pretty quickly. Maybe you’ve believed you don’t have the experience to contribute to the team. Maybe you want to make a change, but you’re not sure what your team will think. Maybe you just feel like you are not enough for all your students need. Maybe that’s not you, but something else is there lingering in the back of your mind.

Take a minute and ask yourself those questions: What is your story? Who are you listening to? How is that going?

Write down your responses. Write down the voices you want to listen to and a couple of ways you can give those your attention. Write down a few voices you know will try to speak into your story that you plan on not giving your attention to.

Whose story will you shape?

But don’t stop with simply recognizing the ways that stories influence you. There’s an even bigger realization that we cannot miss: If we are wired up to let outside influences impact our stories, then we have the chance to serve others as a positive voice in their story.

What we have to say to others—friends and foes, new and old—matters more than we might have previously believed. It can profoundly shape someone’s story.

Don’t believe me?

Odds are that it’s no work at all to bring back a hurtful comment or a time someone went out of the way to pay you a genuine compliment. Both inform your story. Be the person who speaks truth and encouragement to others. You have no idea how powerful an impact it may have on someone’s story!

As you move throughout your week, I hope you seek out opportunities to speak life and truth into the lives of those around you—both those closest to you and those you’ve not even met. It’s your responsibility and your privilege to invest in others in this way.

If you like what you’re reading here, consider checking out my book, Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth. The book highlights six truths that will help you THRIVE as an educator. Click here to learn more about the book on my blog or find the book on Amazon.