Why Every Educator Needs Their Own Public Narrative

“Our research suggests good teaching also needs to be anchored in a clear vision of what the work of the relevant discipline or field actually looks like, as well as in the conviction that students (including disadvantaged students) are capable sense-makers who can in engage in such work.”

In their book In Search of Deeper Learning, Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine embed themselves in a variety of American high schools to discover where and how “deeper learning” — cognitively complex work that is relevant and empowering to all students — thrives. Their conclusion? Deeper learning is tied more closely to certain types of teachers than it is to certain types of schools.

In articulating the skills and traits of the most effective teachers, Mehta and Fine use the term “deeper teaching.” They argue that deeper teaching rests not in certain pedagogical approaches or professional credentials, but rather in personal beliefs and experiences. A teacher’s understanding of the value of their expertise to the world drives their commitment to align their day-to-day work to that understanding. This deeply personal sense of purpose influences how teachers design learning experiences (see Mehta and Fine), how they assess (see Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman), and how they relate to students (see Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond).

Yet, how much time do we spend clearly articulating, examining, and revisiting the purpose of teaching? How well do we tell the story of why our work matters?

In our work with educators and school leaders, GOA often uses the Public Narrative Framework, created by Marshall Ganz of Harvard University, as a way to help educators better tell the story of why their work matters to them, to their communities, and to the world. We also see the framework as a way for educators to get in touch with the sense of purpose that drives deeper teaching.

What is the Public Narrative Framework?

Ganz created the Public Narrative Framework as a way to better understand how social change happens and to empower people to lead that change. The framework weaves together three types of stories into a single narrative: Story of Self, Story of Us, and Story of Now.

Story of Self: What calls you to this work? The story of self recounts a personal journey. It should capture what Ganz calls “choice points”: the essential experiences that led you to this point in time. This story is not a summary of a resume; rather, it’s a vivid series of anecdotes that paint a picture of what you believe and how you came to believe it.

Story of Us: What values define your community? While the first story tells the story of your identity, this story locates you in a collective identity. “Community” could mean many things, but for educators it is most often our schools or learning organizations. What are the choice points that define the community where you work? How do those experiences shape what your community believes and the impact it wants to make?

Story of Now: What is happening beyond our community that calls us to action? This third element gives a public narrative a sense of urgency. If the purpose of school is to prepare students for the world beyond it, then the story of now should reveal the challenges and opportunities your students will face, and, then, how you and your community are suited to help students meet them.

Public narratives can take many forms: written, oral, multimedia, etc. What’s essential is that they are crafted as stories and that they are shared. In his work, Ganz cites Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as an ideal example of public narrative.

Why a Public Narrative Matters

Creating a public narrative is much more than a reflective act. It is an empowering act. In their description of deeper teaching, Mehta and Fine cite the psychologist Robert Kegan’s idea of a “subject to object shift.” Great teachers do not see themselves as passive subjects of a larger system; instead, they understand how to use the system to achieve their goals and how to communicate why and how those goals matter. Crafting a public narrative is a way 1) to ensure the choices you make are aligned to core purpose, 2) to find the intrinsic motivation and grit to pursue that purpose in the face of challenges, and 3) to lead others in understanding, believing in, and supporting those choices.

How to Get Started on Your Public Narrative

  • Story of Self: Articulate why you teach what you teach, then push yourself to dig deeper. Use the “Five Why’s” protocol to get as close as possible to your true motivation to do what you do.
  • Story of Us: Study your school or learning organization's mission, values, and purpose. Learn about its history and the history of the community it serves. What is the story your school is trying to tell? What has it experienced, overcome, or created that contributes to this story?
  • Story of Now: Why is your narrative urgent at this moment in time? Find data, current events, and research that help you better understand what role you and your community can play in the world.

Be sure to find opportunities to share your public narrative with colleagues, students, or families. Across our network and beyond, we've seen public narratives drive strategic changes in schools and classrooms. We’ve used the framework in coaching contexts, especially when working with educators on competency-based learning, where the core work is aligning learning experiences to skills that matter in the world beyond school. We’ve seen the power of the public narrative to align core beliefs with community beliefs to inform action.

We would love to see and share your public narratives! Connect with us at hello@globalonlineacademy.org.

GOA serves students, teachers, and leaders and is comprised of member schools from around the world, including independent, international, charter, and public schools. Learn more about Becoming a Member. Our professional learning opportunities are open to any educator or school team. Follow us on LinkedIn and Twitter. To stay up to date on GOA learning opportunities, sign up for our newsletter.

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