Tuesday, May 31, 2016

What We Can't Say

Teaching is often storytelling. I've found, and if you've read anything I've ever written you know this, teaching something through a story is the best way to make it engaging and interesting. I'll find a story, remember a story, or reference a story that somehow relates to the point I'm trying to make. I'll use that as a vehicle to get where I want all of us to go.

We tell stories in our classrooms. We must, after all, justify why that train is leaving the station at 5:46 pm going west at 96 mph while the other train is, for some reason, heading in the opposite direction at 88 kph having left ten minutes later. I'd like to note here that every math teacher reading this just had a small aneurysm.

History is a collection of stories dressed up as facts. Science is the universe told as a story. Adam Savage used to talk about Mythbusters telling the story of science, and when they found the story that was when the show worked best.

Teachers are full of stories. Any one of us, who has spent any time with kids, has a pocketful. Go to a party with at least two teachers. You will find them sequestered in a corner, drinks in hand, exchanging humorous anecdotes worthy of, at least, Reader's Digest (who is considering publishing two of my jokes). If that's not you at a party then you are cooler than I am. Because I, hard as I try, will always revert to, "This kid in my class did this hilarious thing yesterday. I'm going to corner you at this dinner table and force you to hear all about it. But in order for you to understand why it is SO hilarious I'll need to give you background on the lesson I was teaching. Which is pedagogically sound because of these reasons I'll enumerate for you. Oh, I see you thinking about Common Core. Let me explain to you why it's not the evil you might have heard so much about. Where are you going, you didn't hear my story yet."

It's a good thing my students are trapped in a room with me. This is also why teachers look so relaxed at conferences. Finally someone who speaks English- Third period!

The ability to tell stories about our kids is not all that we share. We also share the inability to tell stories about our kids.

Each and every teacher has in her or his heart a dozen stories no one will ever hear. Stories we don't bust out at parties or conferences or even in books and blogs. Stories that live between us and a student, sometimes between us and a parent, that no one else can know. Because ethically we can't tell anyone what we know.*

Instead we bear them.

We shake a parent's hand at the end of a meeting, is it too familiar to hug them, walk them to our classroom door, and as they walk away let what we learned wash over us. The privilege and burden of teaching is to know children, to know their secrets. To see a kid in class, and to know that might not be the same kid at home. To hear mom talk about when the kid smiles talking about school and how that makes her feel. The context that gives that statement the weight that made us cry in the meeting is not ours to give. So the story sits unshared.

This isn't always a choice. It's not being coy or playing the martyr, suffering privately but look at me suffering. We simply can't tell. We don't have the words or the right.

So we hold them. They inform our teaching and remind us that what we do is so much more than it appears. So much more than anyone understands. They are another factor that makes our students Our Kids.

Our untold stories bind us.

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher


  1. *I know we're mandated reporters. Not the point, not the same.

  2. I usually sit with a HS teacher and share sad/shocking stories. Perhaps there is more to laugh at in elementary school. And I have lots of untold stories. Sometimes stories go untold because people don't want to really hear them because they would force anyone to reconsider what we are doing with our time in school. We also need to give our students more time to tell their stories. Students need adults to listen to their stories. They crave it.

  3. Sometimes I wish more teachers wouldn't tell stories. I don't like when their teacher from last year tells me all about a kid and/or their parents. Usually my opinion is very different than theirs because we are very different as teachers. Perfect example happened this year. Last year's teacher had nothing good to say about student and especially about mom. Student is fine and mom and I turned out to be close...She was even able to tell me things going on at home (not so happy divorce) I'm guessing she wouldn't have told last year's teacher. And those things helped me in the classroom with her daughter.

    1. I completely agree. I don't go to last year's teacher for the low down until long after I've met the kid.

  4. Thank you. That is all I can muster right now. Thank you. Buen camino, fellow caminante ~ jen hasler troutman