This Isn’t a Storybook Year, Right?

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Photo by Monica Sedra on Unsplash

Grief.

It is still present.

Educators are grieving because of pandemic teaching, the loss of in-person connections with students, the overwhelming schedules and Zoom fatigue, the never-ending workload.

As the seasons change and distance learning continues into the fall, grief can take its toll.

The impact is visible in the stories educators tell through Facebook and Twitter posts that name grief and hopelessness.

Yet it is storytelling that can provide a space to reframe grief as hope.

Stories are powerful.

We have a long tradition of telling stories as humans, whether through Egyptian hieroglyphics or prized short story anthologies.

Stories shape our reality and name our possibilities.

It is through stories that we can move towards intention and away from overwhelming emotions.

Stories Can Move Us Onward

Elena Aguilar, an educational coach, focuses on the positive outcome of intention setting in her book Onward. As she explains in the book, intention setting is the process of naming a challenging emotion and then deciding, in advance, on steps to reframe or redirect that emotion toward a desired outcome. One key act in intention setting is telling the story of the desired outcome.

I came to Onward while planning a closing session for a three-month professional development series I had been leading for a small school academy. After months of engaged dialogue and consideration of the opportunities within distance learning, I could still hear the grief. So I reached out to my colleague Aijeron (Aija) Simmons, an SEL coach, to talk through how to move the group toward intention for the upcoming term. Her reply via text was to consider the exercise in chapter three of Onward. She then shared her rationale for focusing on intention setting through storytelling, “I am trying to get teachers to tell stories in this moment . . . not for reflection when Covid is over but as a means for resilience and creative powerful learning spaces for students.”

Resilience is a term generally reserved for speaking about students. Yet, as learners themselves, educators also need space to build and name their resilience. Intention setting through story telling is one strategy for building resilience. As Aija noted in our text conversation, “Educators need to become self-aware of their intentions, reflect and adjust by using their self told stories as a data source. This is especially true when the intention you need comes up against some internal bias or habit.”

Her statement made me immediately think of the internal habit of martyrdom that teachers enact — the compulsion to work all hours of the night, to not rest, to say yes to everyone’s needs but their own. Intention setting can help push against the negative thoughts that come up when educators are honest about the the pain they have experienced, the changes they need, and the story they hope to tell.

In leading the small academy through an intention exercise focused on both their personal stories and the school’s organizational stories. I showed pictures of the school. Although one picture was that of students creating a peace sign on the football field, the story that came up for one educator was of deep pain. It is a pain that is still in the background of his current teaching experience. A pain that has unconsciously surfaced in his response to the grief and exhaustion that pandemic teaching has created.

This is why the stories we hold, consciously and subconsciously, are so important. They spur our reactions and emotions to both explicitly and subtly connected experiences. The grief educators are experiencing is not just from distance teaching — it is from continual strife against the very foundation of schooling, the separating of youth and adults into those who can and should make it and those who should just be grateful.

Like many educators, I held onto a story that shaped most of my years teaching middle and high school. The story came from an incident with a white female colleague. She attempted to send me — a Black female teacher — and two Black boys to the principal’s office. She made her demand in front of her class and mine. I refused and would not allow the students to go either. She huffed and puffed around me for the next two hours. By the end of the day, word had spread about the incident. My principal did not want to touch the situation. The school already had an organizational story of inequity towards students of color. The union provide no support as our representative had a close bond with the offending teacher. The rest of the staff went mute.

I spent the rest of the school year in collegial silence. The story I told was that having colleagues as an educator was more harmful than good. For ten years I actively shunned any colleague who attempted to build a relationship with me. It was not until I met Joel, a colleague who was willing to name his intention to work in collaboration with me and model how to reframe a distorted thought into a hoped-for outcome. Together, he and I began to tell new stories of collegiality. We began to set intentions for student experiences and communication. His calls to my room would often start with a song and then the phrase, “So I had this bright idea this morning.” Then he would proceed to tell the story of how his bright idea could be a reality if he and I worked together.

We started small, as I had just a mustard seed of trust. Yet, by the time I left teaching, it was the stories that we told and brought to reality that formed how I trained teacher candidates, how I cautioned them against settling for the bitter story and instead guided them to consider an alternative. I often asked them the clarifying question, “I hear that is what you believe is the challenge. What would it look like if that challenge was removed. What might be other possible outcomes?”

As educators across the nation settle into the new, temporary, yet in many ways permanent, normal, we should ask what teaching would look like if the challenges of not being in the classroom, of students not turning on their computer, of there not being enough time to teach units, of tech not working, and the list goes on, were reframed? What could the story be if it is shifted from the emotion of failure and disappointment to the intention-setting space of agency and resilience?

What is the story of the desired outcome?

What is one intention that could get you closer to that story?

Because grief doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Lanette Jimerson is a Bay Area native, writer, and scholar. Learn more at The Literate Self.

Writer, educator, and scholar. I write about equity and justice issues (local & global) in education with a particular focus on writing and contemporary texts

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