Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

The Power of Storytelling

By Nora Carr, APR, President, National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) and Chief of Staff, Guilford County Schools, Greensboro, NC*

With child poverty rising nationwide and public education under constant attack, working in school public relations can get discouraging. Then something comes along that reminds us why we do what we do. Sometimes it’s a photograph; sometimes it’s a story. It may be an event, film clip, quote, poem, or even a news segment.

In Joplin, MO, it’s a young boy experiencing his brand new school in what once was a storm ravaged community, exclaiming: “It feels like happiness.” And, it’s a visionary superintendent who kept pushing for a “bigger, better” Joplin when many felt a more modest standard would suffice. 

In Jamestown, NC, it’s a school hosting a parade and surprise party for a 97-year-old volunteer who found new purpose helping medically fragile children. And it’s every news outlet in town coming out to cheer everyone on, the look of pure joy radiating from every crevice on the volunteer’s face as he hugs one of his kids.

In Haughton, LA, it’s a teenager who wows the crowd as part of the team’s color guard, twirling flags with precision to the beat of music she can’t hear. And, it’s her determination to pursue a position on the flag team in college, and the public school that made her inclusive education possible.

In Sanger, CA, it’s a young girl who arrives from Mexico at age five not speaking any English and then graduates as her high school’s valedictorian, despite working nearly fulltime as a farmworker. And, it’s a school district that supported her dreams to become the first in her family to attend college, breaking the cycle of failure so often associated with poverty.

The Heart of Public Education

This is public education. It touches the heart when we tell stories about our students, parents, teachers and volunteers. It leaves room for the naysayers when we focus only on facts, figures and funds. And, it’s school public relations professionals who have the honor and the privilege of telling these stories.

Storytelling is powerful. Part art, part science, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Character, conflict, challenge and resolution all form the basis of good stories. Crafted into a compelling narrative, captured on video, posted on social media, shared at luncheon meetings and recognized at school board meetings, stories spark an emotional response – one that moves even the silent majority to action.

All stories aren’t created equal, however. Feel good stories alone won’t motivate change at the ballot box or generate higher enrollment in public schools. Message frames within stories matter as well.

Inspiring Action from a Caring Public

Research consistently shows that the public still cares passionately about its public schools. The public understands how important teachers are and wants them to earn better wages. They also care about art, physical education and music. They worry about too much testing and many are willing to pay more taxes to improve public schools.

What too many people don’t know is just how good our public schools are. They also don’t know how much damage is being done by ongoing budget cuts, shifting public policies and the corporate takeover of public education.

Educators are angry, and rightly so. Yet anger won’t motivate busy moms and dads and retirees to flock to the polls, demanding change. We need to stay focused on the needs, challenges and successes of public school children, and how great educators made those results possible. Then we can shift to why we need a highly educated and credentialed teaching corps that is paid as the professionals they are.

That’s a very different story than simply sharing facts and figures about low teacher pay, sagging morale and increasing teacher turnover. Both are true. However, one inspires action and the other inspires despair.

When the stories we tell align with a master narrative frame of public school success, stellar academic performance, wise use of taxpayer dollars and other overarching themes, we begin to shift from highly skilled technician to strategist. Not surprisingly, this also is where we start getting real results.

Note: NSPRA has a wealth of resources to help you tell your district’s stories more persuasively, www.nspra.org. See also the National Teacher Initiative, http://storycorps.org/, and the Center for Digital Storytelling, www.storycenter.org.

*Nora Carr is a past recipient of the NSPRA Presidents Award. She can be contacted at carrn@gcsnc.com

Image by Hugo Gernsback [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons