Teacher to Storyteller

Ruben Brosbe

by | 11.7.16

Ruben Brosbe is a fourth-grade teacher in Harlem, New York City. He is passionate about social justice focused project based learning, and finds that young people make the best activists. He is a teacher leader, Cohort 14 NYC Teaching Fellow and has a masters in education of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Connect with Ruben on Twitter @blogsbe and read more of his work on Medium.

In June of 2015 I decided to step outside my comfort zone and into the role of student in a storytelling class. Through the course of the class I told a myriad of stories including one about my first kiss and a summer internship gone terribly wrong.

Corey Taylor, a Bronx music teacher, telling a story at “Breakthroughs and Breakdowns,” the second Teachable Moments live storytelling event.

As I practiced oral storytelling, I came to see it as a very powerful medium for teachers to take part in. For starters, teaching is part performance. Anything that can help us captivate our audiences is a tool worth trying.

But since that June I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about storytelling as a pathway to transform teaching. How?

For starters, telling our stories — the good, the bad, and the ugly — is a straightforward way to demand the respect our profession deserves. While practically every American has had firsthand classroom experiences, nobody except teachers can really appreciate what we do. Whether it’s, “It must be nice to have summers off,” or, “I could never do what you do,” there’s a disconnect between the non-teaching public and the work that we do. Telling true stories from our classrooms helps to eliminate that barrier, and requires greater empathy and respect for the professional and emotional labor of our work.

In general, the emotional labor of teaching isn’t something that we discuss much, whether with colleagues or friends and family. This highlights another benefit of telling our classroom stories: catharsis. Last winter I got up in front of a crowd mixed with fellow teachers and non-teachers. I told a story about my first year of teaching. In some ways it included anecdotes I’d told plenty of times before, but something about organizing it into a narrative, and giving it a happy ending (I’m still teaching!) was deeply satisfying.

Marci Jones, a former 5th grade teacher, sharing at the same event.

Another reason to turn your teaching into a story is for our own professional development. We all know that reflection is a key lever of improving our practice. Sometimes this reflection comes from diving into a lesson plan or student work. But this reflection can also come from examining the heart of your practice. Telling a story about a successful lesson or an incredibly difficult student challenges you to think about what teaching means to you, and communicate it to others. If you’re able to share this story with other teachers, there’s no way you won’t grow from the experience.

This brings me to the last transformational aspect of teacher storytelling: It builds community. It’s common knowledge that American teachers are way too isolated from another. This has been called the “egg crate model” of teaching. This has detrimental effects on our ability to see one another teach and learn from one another. It also hinders are ability to support one another emotionally.

Jessica Diaz, a literacy coach in the Bronx, telling her story.

Coming together for the first time last winter, I felt firsthand a different kind of teaching community. Over the course of four stories, the teacher storytellers and the teachers in the audience bonded over our shared experiences and common knowledge. We all know that teaching is hard, and sometimes thankless. We all know the joys and pains of working with young people, and striving to give them the best education possible. But we don’t always acknowledge this to one another. And no, griping over a beer Friday afternoon doesn’t have the same impact. There’s something about sharing stories — perhaps the fact that it’s one of our oldest forms of building culture — that creates community in a different way. Teachers know we often feel under attack from changing standards, shifting curricula and negative news coverage. One way to push back against this is by building resilience through building community.

So these are few reasons why I’m committed to teacher storytelling. I’ve hosted two nights of teacher storytelling in New York City so far, and I’m anxious to do it again soon.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re ready to tell your teacher story:

  1. Be honest. Have you ever been in a grade team or department meeting where no one could admit something wasn’t going well? I have, and it’s infuriating. Beyond that, it’s not way to learn. We teach our students that mistakes are valuable. We ought to lead by example. Everyone loves a good teacher superhero story (See Dangerous Minds, Freedom Writers, et al), but those stories are mostly myth. And they do damage. Being vulnerable is the best way to connect with your audience and also create an opportunity for your own learning.
  2. Tell YOUR story. It’s very tempting to tell about the student who’s mom died or struggled with depression. As teachers, we are so deeply invested in our students, sometimes their stories feel like our own. But they’re not. This isn’t to say you should leave out the realities your students face. Rather, tell these stories from your perspective (and of course be sure to leave out any identifying details). I’m sensitive to this as a white teacher who works in Harlem. Telling your teacher story is a chance to explain who you are as a teacher, and why you teach. It shouldn’t be about sensationalizing the experiences of young people who aren’t in the room to speak for themselves.
  3. Focus on a small moment. It’s tempting to use your story as a platform for an anti-standardized testing diatribe for a five-point plan for fixing federal education policy. Don’t. Almost everything that is wrong or right with education can be illustrated with a specific example. One story I told was about a third grader who broke down into uncontrollable tears on the first day of state reading exams. Another storyteller spoke about being a Black male teacher in an elementary school. Both of these stories connect to much larger, systemic conversations, but they resonate differently than a long, impersonal explanation.

Finally, here are a few tips and tricks from The Moth, one the best-known live storytelling events and podcasts out there. Whatever your teacher story is, you’ll want to remember the general guidelines of storytelling laid out in their post. Interested in sharing your story at a live event in New York City or recording via phone? Submit your story here!

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