What is your story?

For many years I had the privilege of interviewing leading educators regarding their views on various aspects of professional learning for articles that were published in NSDC’s (now Learning Forward) JSD (now The Learning Professional).

They were educators whose ideas have proved resilient over the intervening decades (Michael Fullan and Peter Senge, for example), and the stories they shared, sometimes couched in technical terms, about how individuals learn and organizations change demonstrated the link between resilience, influence, and storytelling.

The stories these “influencers” told often revealed the people, experiences, and values that animated both their personal and professional lives.

Here is such a story from my life:

Early in my teaching career I attended an inspiring and practical 3-day workshop on what was then called “mastery teaching.” My big “take away” was that virtually all students could learn virtually everything I wanted them to know given sufficient time and “correctives,” and that their improved grades would reflect that learning.

Soon after I returned to my school, however, I realized that to implement what I had learned I had to overcome a significant barrier in the form of my principal who believed that good teachers should distribute grades more or less on a normal-distribution curve slightly skewed to the high side to show that we were making a positive difference.

His strongly-held belief posed a problem – how would I give grades that he would accept that would also reflect the higher-levels of learning I anticipated in my classroom?

We met, and he decided to allow an experiment with one of my classes if I brought all student work to him for review for the remainder of the school year. (The experiment concluded at the end of the school year when I moved on to another assignment.)

Over the years I told that story many times to illustrate:

• The power of beliefs to shape professional practice.

• That unless professional development addressed the existing beliefs of teachers and administrators the innovations would flounder and likely fail.

Stories can shape attitudes (often unconsciously), bond groups, teach important lessons, and provide guidance and motivation.

They can be used in:

• classrooms

• faculty meetings

• family gatherings

• with friends

What stories have you used or might you use to teach, guide, or motivate?

4 Responses to “What is your story?”


  1. 1 rickrepicky November 15, 2017 at 9:50 am

    Macbeth Man Demonstrates Teacher Lottery

    I first heard of the teacher lottery at a Rick DuFour workshop 20 years ago. The lottery applies to how students’ experiences vary by the computer-generated teacher assignments they receive. In short, every student takes English 9, but unless a school takes proactive steps toward a guaranteed & viable curriculum and common assessments, a set of twins in the same school, with the same schedule, can have vastly different learning experiences based upon their teachers.

    As a hs principal, I had a student visit me in June, second-from-last day of classes, to complain that his teacher was just starting a Macbeth unit and the play would be a major part of the final exam. That allowed for just one more 90-min class. I spoke to the teacher who unabashedly claimed that former students held him in high esteem for his “amazing ability” to quickly teach the play. I told Macbeth Man I would be there to observe the next/last class.

    The class was terrible. The teacher told the students to open their books to various pages where he—in his most eloquent Shakespearean acting voice—would read short passages, give his 10 second interpretation, and conclude, “Mark this down; it’s on the exam.”

    The word LOTTERY screamed in my mind. These students were being cheated. Other same-course students had teachers who spent multiple weeks dissecting the play with student input. I vowed on that day that to work with teacher teams to show the value of:
    • A guaranteed & viable curriculum
    • Common assessments to compare and improve student learning.

    • 2 Dennis Sparks November 15, 2017 at 12:35 pm

      Thanks for sharing your excellent story, Rick. I am familiar with the concept of lottery as applied to student class assignments, but your story makes it clear why it is essential for school leaders to do everything they can to ensure that all students experience quality teaching and learning, not just those who win the lottery.

  2. 3 Kent Peterson November 15, 2017 at 11:43 am

    Great example of the importance of beliefs and attitudes–and how they shape (positively or negatively) the work of teachers. Your use of this story also illustrates the power of STORY–data is good for some things, but stories are almost more powerful ways to send messages.


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