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Storytelling as Professional Development

EducationWorld is committed to bringing educators the practical tools they need to make good decisions, engage in effective leadership and implement strategies that work. To further this commitment, we have formed a content partnership with Stenhouse Publishers. EducationWorld is pleased to feature a variety of book excerpts as part of this collaboration. Check back frequently as we feature additional excerpts from Stenhouse titles.

The following excerpt is taken from Leading and Learning: Effective School Leadership Through Reflective Storytelling and Inquiry by Fred Steven Brill (Stenhouse Publishers, 2008). The book retails for $19 and is available on the Stenhouse Web site.

This excerpt describes a form of professional development that involves new administrators sharing personal experiences and reflecting upon them as part of a professional learning community. See other excerpts from this book: Supportive or Pushy? Good Administrators Are Both and Be Careful With What You Put in Writing.

The use of storytelling as a form of adult learning is a profound shift in the way school leaders traditionally have engaged in professional development. Although it is not unusual for a professional developer to allow participants a few minutes to check in with table partners at the start of a meeting, this is often where storytelling ends.

It is tragic that storytelling often has been seen as a frivolous, unproductive activity; the act of sharing not only facilitates connection and caring among colleagues, it also promotes a process of sensemaking and the reconceptualization of practice. Storytelling without reflection can present as a form of entertainment, but reflective storytelling can serve as a springboard for professional development. Growth-oriented leaders relish the opportunity to contemplate their craft and to thoughtfully consider the many decisions they have made and have yet to make, without performing under the all-too-bright lights of school leadership.

About Stenhouse Publishers

Stenhouse publishes professional development books and videos by teachers and for teachers. Their titles cover a range of content areas -- from literacy and mathematics to science, social studies, the arts, and environmental education -- as well as a variety of topics, including classroom management, assessment, and differentiation.


In the reflective storytelling process, new administrators come together in a professional learning community that has clearly defined norms and protocols. Some larger school districts offer such professional development every two weeks, but other principals have organized their own collaborative networks of principals who work in the same county or region and meet on a monthly basis, using a less formal structure. Participants are asked to work in pairs or triads, and they take turns sharing a story. Ten to fifteen minutes are generally allotted for this portion of the protocol.

Over time, it is helpful to maintain the same critical friendship groups to build trust and understanding of context and ongoing challenges. For obvious reasons, norms of confidentiality are reinforced at every session. Participants are given prompts that are designed to elicit stories of an account in which they or some member of the school community experienced (or is experiencing) a form of emotional distress. The theory is that, when individuals experience some kind of emotional quandary, they are more receptive to feedback—they are more eager to understand the nuances of the situation and to think critically about what got them into such a stressful situation. The prompts provide an opening for new leaders to explore the triggers to intense emotion and analyze the ways in which they navigate (or might navigate) the challenges with which they are confronted.

Prompts for Reflective Storytelling

  • Describe the biggest goal or challenge you are facing this year.
  • What have you done in the school setting that reflects (or challenges) your vision and values?
  • What decisions have you made that were considered daring by yourself or others?
  • What is the hardest thing (or the best thing) that happened to you during the last week?
  • Tell a story in which you were expected to play a role you were uncomfortable playing.
  • Tell a story in which a decision you made was opposed by at least one stakeholder (parent, student, teacher, union representative, district office administrator).
  • Describe a situation in which you felt misunderstood or misrepresented.
  • Tell a story about a policy you implemented that was met with resistance.
  • Tell about an “aha” that you have experienced so far this year.
  • Tell a story about how you have negotiated the state and federal accountability agenda and corresponding communications with your staff and/or community.
  • Describe a situation in which you dealt with intense emotion.
  • Describe a difficult or unpalatable decision you had to make, and describe the decision-making process you used.
  • Tell a story that showcases the heroes, villains, or fools in your school.
  • Tell a story about a time you were confronted with a situation for which you were unprepared.
  • Describe a decision you had to make that called into question your philosophy and guiding principles.

Although there can be tremendous value in simply sharing and hearing a story, the process becomes much richer when reflective questions are used to deepen understanding. (New leaders quickly learn that friends and family can’t always appreciate or understand the complexity of the challenges they bring home each night.) After the storytelling portion of the process, listeners pose variations of the following reflective questions to elicit further contemplation of choices, roles, and actions. The active listeners are reminded to refrain from delving into their own similar quandaries; instead, they are expected to offer clarifying and probing questions to bring out the depth in the story and expose motivations, intentions, values, and desired outcomes. It is also helpful to push for elaboration of the decision-making processes that were used and the involvement (or exclusion) of various stakeholders.

Reflective Questions

  • Why did you choose to tell this particular story?
  • What was the primary challenge you faced?
  • What precipitated this particular problem/dilemma?
  • What were your intended outcomes when you became involved in the situation?
  • How did you settle on these outcomes?
  • How did you go about resolving the situation?
  • What process did you use to make your key decisions or choose a particular course of action?
  • Who, if anyone, did you involve in your decision-making process?
  • Who did you exclude from your decision-making process? Why?
  • Were you satisfied with the results of your actions?
  • What emotions did you experience throughout the situation?
  • Did these emotions color the way in which you responded, either positively or negatively? Explain.
  • How would different members of the school community describe the way you handled yourself and the situation?
  • If you had to do it all over again, would you respond differently to the situation?


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