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Telling Great School Stories: Unleashing the Power of Narrative

Every school district has a story.

Like it or not, that story is increasingly on display. From parent-teacher conferences to social media posts to school board meetings, the ideas and opinions of your community shape your district’s narrative—and, by extension, its reputation.

As if that weren’t enough pressure, it’s worth mentioning that the Internet has an incredibly long memory—which means your mistakes, like those cringe-worthy college Facebook photos (you know the ones), will live in infamy.

These days, few school leaders enter into a professional challenge expecting to emerge unscathed. If you work in schools, it’s a fact: someday, someone will take exception to the decisions you make.

But careers are rarely defined by isolated moments. It’s the narrative your school or district tells over time, its track record, that the community will remember. So, what’s the best way to build a compelling and lasting narrative for your schools? Here are three ideas to help tell your story over the long haul.

1. Be a curator of stories.

My favorite museum is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

I could spend hours reading about every little artifact, because they all have a uniquely fascinating story to tell. But, each one of those stories contributes to a broader historical narrative.

Think about school narratives the same way, suggests award-winning middle school teacher and blogger Heather Wolpert-Gawron in a recent Edutopia blog post:

There’s a power in collecting and curating those stories that help define our school site and our students. I say curate because some of these stories are already being drafted, revised, and rewritten even as we speak. Some tales are already happening in the classrooms and schools. School and district leaders just need to recognize that the books are there to be opened.

Your faculty and students accomplish amazing feats every day. Make sure your community knows about all the good stuff that’s going on in your world.

Ft. Wayne Community Schools in Indiana is one of several school districts that effectively uses Twitter to highlight student and staff activities. A quick spin through the district’s Twitter feed from the month of December reveals a deep commitment to charitable causes and community service.

Emphasizing the good work your school or district does is a good way to build good will and keep parents and community members from focusing on the negative.

2. Cultivate the narrative, don’t write it.

As you write your school system’s narrative, it’s vitally important to remember you’re not the only author of its story. Think of yourself instead as editor-in-chief, steering the vision, but relying heavily on the contributions of others.

Obviously, teachers and students have a huge part to play. Some school systems have created dedicated social media accounts specifically to document what goes on in classrooms and on athletic fields, for example.

3. Don’t be afraid to adjust your narrative.

Your district’s story never ends. But its themes and characters often change.

Sometimes your narrative changes naturally, such as with the addition of new students or teachers.

But you also have the power to shift your narrative when the situation calls for a change.

When Michigan’s Saline Area Schools was unable to convince taxpayers to support a much-needed bond measure for school improvements, Superintendent Scot Graden knew he needed a better story to tell—one that would resonate with voters come Election Day.

The district issued a survey and used other forms of feedback to understand where its original message failed to connect.

Based on the feedback the district received from the community, Graden and his staff changed their focus from simply fixing outdated buildings to making classrooms and learning spaces “future-ready.”

When the bond came around again, it passed—to the tune of $65 million.

What tools and resources do you use to tell your school’s story? Tell us in the comments.