April 30, 2008

Tell Your Stories?

Kids love it when their teachers share stories about their lives. I’m not exactly sure why, but I can remember being a young student and loving to hear about the experiences of my teachers, the mistakes they made, and the lessons they learned. Taking advantage of an “educational moment” and sharing how a certain event changed our lives can sometimes have a larger impact on the lives of our students then when we teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic.

I remember Bob Farley, my high school algebra and geometry teacher. Mr. Farley was a veteran of World War 2 where he served as a tail gunner. Bob loved to share his adventurous stories about the war and other experiences from his long life. When I was a student in Bob’s classroom he was self-described, “older than dirt.” On days when we students didn’t want to work it was relatively easy to side track our beloved instructor by asking him to tell us about his life. Mr. Farley had a sense of humor too; and I loved to test it. One day he began class by saying, “Class, who was the world’s first stupid woman?” Being unable to stop my immature self, I stood up and responded, “Your wife!” The class was silent in anticipation of what would follow. I knew what was coming next (it hadn’t been the first time I had spoken out of turn) so I picked up my backpack and head towards the principal’s office. I was shocked when Mr. Farley started to chuckle, then instructed me to sit down. I did. Bob then began again, “Class, who was the world’s second stupid woman?” A classic moment.

Bob Farley was a classic, sophisticated, caring, sometimes charming teacher and male role model in my early development who not only taught me how to calculate, but also how to be a human being. Bob respect his students enough to want to share his lifetime of experience with them and “teach them something.” And I learned a lot from him. I learned that I never wanted to stand in the back of a flying aircraft behind a wall of glass shooting at other flying aircrafts. He once told us that he was sent to the back of a plane that did not have a machine gun. His commanding officer handed him a broomstick and told him to act like he was firing at the enemy planes. What an amazing man.

Mr. Farley wasn’t the only teacher who devoted a part of his lesson plan to the lessons of life. I have been fortunate to have many teachers throughout my scholastic career willing to share their wisdom with the students. There was the English teacher who was also a published author, the band instructor who had played in the USC marching band, and I’ll never forget the college economics instructor who literally “wrote the book.”

At an early age I learned to listen to the adults in my life and glean understanding from the experiences they had. I’ve always tried to use these lessons to avoid making the same mistakes as others. I regret to report that I’m not very successful in my endeavor. But this approach to life is worthwhile and worth teaching to our pupils along with the “three r’s.” I hope the days of “don’t trust anyone over 30” are dead and buried and that today’s educators can make a concerted effort to not just educated the young, but impart wisdom to our future leaders as well. How do we make our students wise? We share the wisdom that we have gathered by explaining how we got wise: we tell our stories.

Perhaps hearing about our lives reassures our students that their lives will turn out ok. These are turbulent times and it’s brutally difficult to be young. In fact, it’s downright scary. Many children feel alone and lost in the world. The family structure is being warped and twisted as our society struggles to find and redefine itself. Violence, drugs, and predatory adults are invading the solemn ground of our campuses at an alarming rate. Where can our young people turn for security and a protective wing? Kids today are hungry, starving for the undivided attention of the adults in their world. They covet our time and are in need of our guidance. It’s kind of difficult to impart wisdom when explaining sentence structure. We need a different medium. I suggest taking a break from the standards from time to time to explain why standards are important and how your personal standards have changed your life.

There is no doubt that one generation inherits both the successes and failures of the previous generation. I want to make sure that the generation that I teach not only receives a well-rounded academic education, but also a strategy for living that includes wise decision-making. We are always standing on the shoulders of giants. We stand upon our mother and father’s shoulders just as they stood upon our grandparent’s. So far this metaphorical human pyramid is pretty secure. I want make sure it stays that way.

So I tell stories. I share my life’s experience with my students. Not everyday, but from time to time I pause to share a lesson that I’ve learned and the experience that produced the lesson. I try to use humor as much as possible and share age-appropriate antidotes when they fit. Nothing gets the attention of a sleepy group of youngsters quicker then an amusing recollection of someone who they admire concluding in a fable-like ending that clears up their foggy world, if only for a moment.

It may not be included in the scope and sequence, and there may not be a standardized test designed to measure the wisdom that you impart to your students, but in my opinion, sharing your wisdom (and teachers are very wise indeed) is at the very core of our call to educate the future leaders of our world.


  1. In the last few years I have not bonded as well with my students as I have in the past. Hey! It very well could be because I keep the stories to myself now. I feel the pressure to keep things moving along with more with so much content, so little time, and TESTING. Also, I think my stories are boring and irrelevant, but perhaps I with your post in mind, I'll share my stories more. I've learned my share in the 25 years since I was the age of my students.

  2. Strange New TeacherMay 4, 2008 at 7:17 PM

    I believe fully in the saying, "Students won't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Cliche? Sure. But also totally true.
    During my student teaching (haven't yet had a class of my own), I shared a lot of my stories with my students. It didn't dawn on me that what I shared could impart wisdom. I was just being myself by being real.
    I think kids these days appreaciate an adult who can be real. I think they are reassured when an adult will openly admit a time when he/she failed miserably only to find life go on. They look for role models with whom they feel they can relate.
    I wish I could have met Mr. Farley.

  3. First time reader. Love the blog. You are so right about telling your students stories. I taught 6th grade for several years and I would always tell them stories of when I was young. They loved the stories and to this day I have former students remind me some of their favorites. I tried to relate my stories to a lesson or an issue like peer pressure, but sometimes I just told them a story I enjoyed telling.

  4. I'm only 22 and I got a great teaching job with a good district.  The only problem is i'm 22 and I bond really well with my students.  The older teachers I can tell dislike me because of it.  I really listen to my students and not try to jam stuff down their throats.  I'm not saying all older teachers do that because they don't but some do and I can see how hard it is for them to get through to the kids.  I wish there could be a round table where younger teachers can meet with older teachers to throw ideas back and forth.  My father owns a teacher supplies store and he tries to talk technology with all of his teacher customers but they never want to listen.  That's what kids like today so they should listen and use technology as a teaching tool to get kids interested.