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Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The value of telling our stories

I've spent this morning clearing my head by walking around our beautiful bush property, thinking about the issues that provoked yesterday's clamour. (And yes, I had a good night's sleep, thank you!) As I've said before, it's easy to take an initial position of defensiveness when we're attacked unexpectedly- but it's wise to be self-critical when we cause dissent and take time to examine the value (or otherwise) of what we're doing.

An anonymous angry comment on one of my posts, obviously by a colleague, attacked me for 'gossiping' (presumably this referred to me saying openly to a friend the same things that I've heard others say behind their hand, things that my colleagues admit they're concerned about but are scared to say openly). 

To that, I repeat that some things that impact on the children's welfare need to be brought into the light and discussed freely.  Should I have raised the matters discussed with my superior first? Most would say 'yes'; but as a casual staff member who was aware that I might not have the full story, I felt there was value in ensuring that my view wasn't out of step and based on too small a window of experience  by finding out if another respected colleague shared my opinion.  Is that gossiping? I think not, given that the issues raised had professional impact.

The sad part here is that someone felt impelled to draw attention to themselves by sharing what was a private exchange between colleagues with my boss, before challenging me personally.  That's cowardice.  That's playing games.  That's not about the children's welfare, it's about advancing one's political position.

The same anonymous writer called me unprofessional (an allegation I've dealt with in my previous post) and suggested I'd contravened 'centre policies' by telling some of the anecdotes I've shared with you. I have very strong views on that- views which can be supported by peer-reviewed research. 

And so we come to blogging, and the power of our stories.

Is there anyone out there who changes their behaviour based on statistics? Do you vote for the most popular political party because statistically, more people think they're right? Of course not.  You have your own views, and they are based on your personal experiences.

It has been proved that data does not change opinions- in fact, presenting someone who has a contrary opinion with a barrage of supporting facts will further entrench their original position and cause them to attack the validity of that data (see 'global warming'). 

So what to we do if we want to change entrenched behaviour?

Fortunately, more research has been done on this very issue, and the finding was that our stories have more power to change behaviour than any number of statistics and facts.  In 'The Role of Teachers as Researchers and Story Makers', for example, June McConaghy tells the story of a teacher sharing with her colleagues a young child's extremely insightful comment, and what happened as a result of that story-sharing.  A lesson about soldiers lining up to do battle had reminded him of his feelings during spelling bees:

"Sometimes I feel really nervous too, because I know my turn is coming next. I guess the only difference is that we don't die at the end of it."

This story, shared in the staffroom, led to a discussion of the whole concept of competition in the classroom and ultimately to a change of attitude about how teachers might motivate children to excel, without creating unnecessary anxiety through competition. 

Now, there are countless statistics out there about the problematic nature of rankings, but they had not changed the culture of the spelling bee (and competition in general as an academic tool) in this school. One personal story, on the other hand, managed to break down resistance to change and move the philosophy in a healthier direction.

That is just one article of many which I referred to in a university assignment on managing change.  The data is in, though ironically it may not change your mind; telling personal stories is a powerful tool for moving behaviour in a different direction. 

By sharing this story in her journal article, June McConaghy gave that little story added power to achieve change on a wider level.  By sharing it again here, I keep the ball of change rolling, hopefully with an end result that community attitudes to competition will start to actively respect, through different behaviour, that competition is not necessarily a healthy academic tool (rather than doing lip-service to that well-established concept). The vision of that real little boy standing fearfully in line, knowing his turn is next, stays with us more effectively than all the staffroom table hand-outs in the world.

The issue for my former employer and my critics, of course, is just that- I am sharing my stories (which they see as 'protected' by confidentiality) beyond the classroom.  I am one who is definitely more swayed by a personal anecdote than a graph or pie chart, and so having recognised the power of stories long ago, I started this blog because I saw great value in taking significant stories to the wider community- as long as identities were protected. As long as the characters remain anonymous, this is not a breach of protocol or policy.

We are so busy as teachers and carers and parents.  We barely have time to look after our own personal everyday needs, let alone read widely about the best way of doing things; often we only start researching how to solve a problem with our children when there's a crisis.

And honestly, statistics don't speak to a parent whose child is constantly biting other children, or a teacher who is being thumped on a daily basis by a difficult child in their class.  What speaks to us when we're worried or distressed is other human experience.  We seek other parents, carers, teachers or friends who might be able to share stories with us to help us understand what's really going on here. Not everyone can afford to consult an 'expert' (or, indeed, sees the need to do so).

But seeking out these people we already know keeps us in our little bubble, our own little world.  We can become very insular if we only share stories with people from our own centre or school, our own family or our own social demographic.  I think I've become more aware of this than most; casual workers like me become particularly aware of how insular each different care centre can become- each has completely different and entrenched ways of dealing with problems, and none of them is problem-free.  Many centres are 'stuck' in ways of doing things that simply don't work, such as that perennial problem, the rest time routine- so 'stuck' that change isn't even considered.

And this is where blogging comes into its own.

Blogs are by nature anecdotal- they're based on our personal stories, our everyday experiences.  As such, and being net-based, they are a powerful tool for the dissemination of new information and different views on a big-picture, worldwide level. When I read stories by Teacher Tom or Scott of Brick by Brick, for example, I get perspectives from the other side of the world that sometimes provide that 'aha' moment- because they're not confined by the walls of my own experience.  I mention these two in particular out of so many great ECE blogs because they're also men- and male perspective is sadly lacking in childcare, so they have added potential to supply that 'aha'. True, big-picture diversity of views can't be achieved within the walls of one's own centre or family, though the inevitable squabbling of relatives and peers might make it seem so.

By writing the stories of my experience and sharing them with readers around Australia and the world, I return the favour and sometimes provide others with a moment of enlightenment when I crack through their 'bubble' of perspective. This is worth doing.

There are always things that need to be changed- if we're honest, none of us has a perfect home or a perfect workplace.  But change is hard, and stories help. If my stories can make worthwhile changes easier to achieve, then it's worth putting a few noses out of joint.

Footnote: If you'd like to read the whole of June McConaghy's journal article, you'll find it in the Fall/Winter 1994 edition of 'Early Childhood Education', volume 27, no. 2, pp 49-52.


  1. Curiosity question: when do you think we *should* start presenting kids with the deeply competitive, often stressful reality of adult life?

  2. Oh, they'll find out soon enough, believe me- whether we introduce them to it at school or not. Social life with one's young peers is quite competitive enough to introduce the concept; I see competition in the preschool playground every day- we don't need to add gratuitous, cut-throat, public, COMPULSORY competitions in early schooling.

    I don't believe in putting very young children into formal competitions at all *unless they want to compete*. Usually such competitions are more about the expectations of the adults than the wishes of the child (see 'eisteddfodd').

    However, as long as real professional life is a 'survival of the fittest' proposition, I do believe in introducing a certain level of compulsory competition in academic high schools, in the form of not-too-frequent examinations and/or assessments. Exams and assessments are the reality of TAFE and university life, and come as a rude shock to those who haven't experienced pressure. Working life invariably involves pressure. Teachers have a responsibility to teach pressure survival skills, and you can't do that without putting on a little pressure within the school year.

    Naturally, some children do thrive on competition; let them enter competitions as soon as they want. But compulsory competition for under-tens? No.

  3. Thanks for sharing your stories, Annie. You have given me several aha moments...and I'm looking forward to many more.


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