Changing the Narrative

As I’ve written in other posts, I’m a big fan of Brené Brown’s work. Across her books and presentations, she’s offered so many perspectives to broaden how I view my work and my relationships with my family, my colleagues, and (most importantly) myself. One of the most challenging concepts she introduces is her charge for us to confront the “stories we tell ourselves.” Even if you aren’t familiar with that phrase, you have experienced it. Maybe you text someone a long, thoughtful message and you don’t get a response. This is where the “stories we tell ourselves” can begin. As we wade through the silence, we can tell ourselves all sorts of wild tales. Most of the times, the “stories we tell ourselves” are nowhere near the truth.  No, the person hasn’t been kidnapped and they aren’t rejecting you. Their phone just needed to be recharged.

I’ve been thinking about the “stories we tell ourselves” and how that concept needs to be applied to our work with students. I was reflecting on an incident I had with a student recently and how I could have dealt with things a little differently. Let me explain. I had planned a class activity where students were asked to jigsaw different chapters from a text. After placing the students in “expert groups” with other people who had read the same chapter, I placed students in collaborative groups where students each shared their assigned chapter. Throughout the activity, one student was clearly disengaged. She was on her phone a lot and didn’t fully participate in either the expert or collaborative groups. As I observed the class, I felt myself getting angry. And in hindsight, my emotions were largely due to the stories I was telling myself at that moment. The student wasn’t prepared for the activity. She didn’t care about the class. She didn’t respect me. I could go on, but you get the idea.

At that moment, I stopped the entire class and addressed the student and her behavior. I could tell by her reaction that I made the wrong call and had totally misread the situation. I met with the student after class and tried to make amends. She explained her side of the story, which was completely understandable and, honestly, a little heartbreaking.  The story I was telling myself was way off the mark.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you know I’ve been working through ways to avoid situations just like this. I’ve offered mantras like “Lead with Empathy” and “Assume Positive Intent” as ways to redirect that negative energy and improve reactions to and interactions with students. Despite my best efforts, I misstep sometimes. I’m betting you do, too. And it’s okay. We’re human.

We need to try for better, though. I don’t have the answers (clearly), but maybe the best way to avoid the missteps is to work on changing the narrative. We need to confront “the stories we tell ourselves” when we experience a student who may not be meeting our expectations. To change the narrative, we need to be able to see our students as humans, just like us. But how do we do that during those moments of our great and fanciful storytelling?

One idea I have is from the Science of Happiness podcast. A recent episode offered a meditation practice for dealing with people with whom we’re at odds. When meditating, they recommend thinking about the person (or people) who we’re at odds with and repeating the following phrases:

“This person has a body and mind, just like me.”
“This person has feelings, emotions, and thoughts, just like me.”
“This person has been sad, disappointed, angry, hurt, confused, just like me.”
“They experience pain and suffering, just like me.”
“They experience joy, happiness, peace, just like me.”
“They want fulfilling relationships, just like me.”
“This person wants to be loved, just like me.”

I’m not suggesting that you stop class to meditate every time you experience a challenging moment with a student. But remembering and reciting the phrases might help to silence our storytelling when we’re in those moments and help us focus on the humanity of the students we serve.


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