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The Power of Story in School Transformation

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
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I've been thinking a lot about the role of stories in school transformation. As an educator, my most powerful memories involve stories: interpersonal moments where I took the time to listen to someone and, in the process, transformed the relationship; and organizational moments, where I led my team to construct a new narrative about our work. These moments carry an emotional charge, which imprinted them firmly in my brain.

Human brains are hardwired to understand the world through stories. This is so true that psychologists often refer to stories as "psychologically privileged," meaning that our memory treats them differently from other types of information (Willingham). Each of us is a collage of our unique life experiences. By organizing these experiences into a story structure, we try to create order from chaos. Organizations are no different, except that you now have dozens of people trying to form a collective story to explain their experience. This is a tough charge!

In the Pixar film Inside Out, the character Joy lives inside the mind of protagonist Riley, an 11-year-old girl who has just moved with her family and is trying to adjust to life in a new city. Joy's main job is collecting and tending to Riley’s core memories, which are represented as radiating golden spheres with live-action memories flashing across them. As I saw it, core memories are brain-based stories that carry a strong emotional charge.

As educators, we need to pay close attention to the stories of our students and colleagues. By embracing storientation -- or close attention to people's stories -- you can transform your classroom and even your school.

Storientation: The Idea

Storientation calls on educators -- and particularly leaders -- to notice and curate three types of story: stories of self, other, and organization. Let's unpack each of these.

Your Story

Who are you as an educator, and who do you aspire to be? What pivotal moments have shaped your journey? Reflecting on, writing down (in visual or written form), and sharing your story with students and colleagues will help you to model social-emotional intelligence. Through your vulnerability, you will invite other people's stories into the learning community.

The Stories of Others

Storientation also calls on us to demonstrate curiosity about others, to listen and learn before telling and doing. It requires a willingness to slow down and set aside current tasks in order to give full attention to another person. When I use this stance, I am reminded to listen carefully and pay attention to people's nonverbal as well as verbal cues. And when I invite students and colleagues to share their stories, I deepen relationships and create a foundation of trust for the inevitable tough times to come.

The Organizational Story

Finally, organizations carry their own core memories, both positive and negative. In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman writes that leaders "manage meaning" for a group, "offering a way to interpret, and so react emotionally to, a given situation." If you are a formal or informal leader, you can actively curate your team's stories by (for example):

  • Using a story-like format to draft opening remarks for staff and parent meetings
  • Writing regular newsletters or bulletins that tell your school's evolving story
  • Designing adult learning experiences that promote story sharing

Storientation: In Practice

Here are three additional ways to practice storientation:

1. Make time for annual team retreats away from the school building. Team retreats offer a powerful opportunity to share personal narrative and develop a forward-moving organizational narrative.

2. Engage in a listening campaign with students or colleagues at the beginning of each school year. Invite people to share their experiences, hopes, and challenges with you. Be a listener. Consider repeating this process mid-year and at the year's end to gather ongoing data.

3. Practice strategic vulnerability by sharing pieces of your story that humanize you and express your core values as an educator.

As Inside Out reminded me, educators need to pay attention to the core memories that shape us, to the students and colleagues that we see every day, and to our schools. Negative stories can derail our change efforts, while positive stories can accelerate the pace of change.

Respecting the power of story will help you to create the conditions for classroom and school transformation.


  • Willingham, Daniel. Why Don’t Students Like School?, Jossey-Bass, 2009, p.67.
  • Goleman, Daniel, Primal Leadership, p.8.
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Student Stories, Student Impact
This series offers ways to engage both teachers and students in social-emotional practices.

Shane Safir

The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools
In This Series
This series offers ways to engage both teachers and students in social-emotional practices.

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Mehdi Panahi's picture

I appreciate that you bring this powerful tool back to the forefront. I enjoyed reading your article.

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Thank you Mehdi! How have stories shown up in your coaching work?

Louise's picture

I love this idea! Having now worked at a very established school and a new school (with a very diverse, multi-cultural faculty and student body), I am fascinated by how school leaders cultivate school culture. The idea of collective stories certainly seems like one way to establish common ground. On a smaller level, as a teacher, one of my jobs, especially at the beginning of the year, is to build a supportive classroom culture. I am excited to consider how I can pay attention to and curate stories in my classroom as a way to promote a culture that invites inquiry, risk taking and respect.

nikkers1983's picture

I love the way educators and students can make special connections! I'm at a new school this year with an ALL new staff - most fresh out of college. I plan on sharing this article with them as a jumping off point to build a stronger work community as well as better student-teacher relationships!

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Greetings Louise. I'm glad that the concept of storientation resonated with you! I appreciate how you're thinking about it on both an organizational and a classroom level. What ideas do you have about how to curate stories in your classroom?

Shane Safir's picture
Shane Safir
The power of listening: creating opportunity for every student in our schools

Hello there! Let me know how this goes. It can help to ask your colleagues to practice sharing their stories, or professional journeys, with each other as a building block to asking students to share. This can feel vulnerable, so it's good to allow ourselves to practice in safe settings! I'm curious to hear how your staff responds.

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