“Let me tell you a story…”

In the fall of 2020, educators in my school community had not been together in one building since we left school on Friday, March 13, 2020. Despite summer-developed safety plans, seating protocols, mask-wearing, and 6-foot desk spacings, teachers in my building were nervous about returning to school.

Here we were together in the auditorium, seated four seats apart in every other row. Together, but disconnected. Physically gathered, socially distant. Everything was new—nothing was “normal.” Adults in this school community needed something to not only renew their spirit but reconnect. After a video greeting by the superintendent, some housekeeping details, and annual mandatory sign-off information, I shared with these educators a picture of me and my two sisters waiting for the bus at the top of the driveway on the first day of school 50 years ago—in the same district where I have now been a high school principal for 17 years.

I opened with the imperative: “Let me tell you a story…” I spoke of what I remember feeling as a new third grader in 1970 with the responsibility of keeping an eye on my two younger siblings on the bus ride. I shared that the feelings of the unknown—combined with the awesome possibilities of new adventures and doing things differently in a new grade—were not too different from what I was feeling today. Just like the three children in new school clothes with shiny tin lunch boxes, our teachers were beginning a journey back to school.

The first day of school in 2020 was just as momentous as its 1970 counterpart for me.

Showcasing this one old photo from my mom’s scrapbook helped a group of teachers smile, reflect, and begin to formulate action. This picture and its story normalized our return to school in anything-but-normal times. The photo humanized the role of the building leader and made a connection to each of the educators in my school. By purposefully sharing something of my journey, I was also helping communicate timely messages to my teachers.

A Different Back-to-School Model

Massachusetts began the school year in the final week of August with 10 unexpected professional days before children returned to the classroom, whether remotely or hybrid/in-person. My district took nine of these days so that children could return to school on a Monday.

Fate played a profound role. Our Massachusetts School Administrators Association graciously offered me a free, two-day professional development event just prior to school opening. Presented by dynamic lifelong educator, consultant, strategic storyteller, and former school administrator Brianna Hodges, the digital events emphasized the power of storytelling in school leadership. Hodges’ passion and energy refocused me and were catalysts for me to step outside of my formal comfort zone in traditional faculty gatherings to create daily “community meetings.” 

Hodges’ message was simple: Storytelling “can inspire change and prompt the connection necessary to sustain it.”

Nine days before students started their school year, my high school’s teachers began in earnest with a community meeting in the auditorium. For each of the remaining eight morning gatherings, I began with the phrase “Let me tell you a story…”

In each story, I share something on my mind at the time—a book I am reading, an action I recently took, or something personal from my family. These stories evolve to have parallels to the specific school day’s business at hand. Stories don’t have to be lengthy or funny, though laughter certainly helps bring a community together. Your tales may awaken something in teachers that they have put on their “back shelf.”

Storytelling is a strategy I continued to use throughout this school year. My stories are all real, but strategic and purposeful to help provide additional connection, perspective, and even gravitas through an authentic frame. Let me share four tales.

My Oldest Begins a PhD Program

My wife moved my daughter across the country during a pandemic to begin a PhD program in applied math at the University of Arizona. I am so proud of her accomplishments as an undergrad followed by a strategic gap year before graduate school. I hand-wrote a card to her fifth-grade math teacher, to whom I credit my daughter’s love of math. Miss Bozzuto modeled for my daughter the combination of iterative hard work, the possibilities of math, and the power of a strong woman’s influence to effect positive change. This wasn’t the only time I had contacted Miss Bozzuto: I sent a similar note when my daughter began her undergrad journey.

The story’s purpose was twofold: It models the power of gratitude for the community, emphasizes how a hand-written note makes thanks even more special, and helps drive home at the beginning of the year how impactful educators can be. The message? Each teacher in front of me in the auditorium has the power to be transformational to a child this year. I hope they use their power wisely.

An Unfriendly Jogger

Since the March hiatus, I have begun walking early each weekday morning. During the first six months, this grew from a 20-minute stroll to a four-mile power walk to begin each day. One morning around 6:00 a.m., I headed up the small hill from my home when I saw another jogger come toward me on the opposite side of a small street. As he approached near me, I called out, “Good morning.”

No response. 

He didn’t say anything.

He didn’t nod his head. He didn’t even look at me. I was totally ignored. I was incensed, and the sun was barely up!

I saw him again a few days later. I was positioned on his side of the street so that our meeting was imminent and unavoidable without being awkward. As we approached each other, I said, “Good morning,” and was greeted by the slight raising of a wrist in reluctant acknowledgment.

This graduated to a “hey” a few days later. The “heys” even became regular.

One day I was out before a community meeting, and it was really foggy and dark in the pre-dawn hour. My new friend was actually the first person that morning to articulate a greeting. I felt like I won the lottery!

The message to my teachers? Don’t give up. Your interactions with people, whether students or peers, might not reciprocate your original intentions, but you may win over some initially reluctant school stakeholders with consistency and positivity. It’s easy to label people after one encounter or deem an initiative a failure if it wasn’t an initial success. 

Try again. Persistence pays dividends, even if it’s just a “hey.”

My 81-Year-Old Mother and a Tick Bite

At the end of June, my usually healthy 81-year-old mom began to feel unwell. No appetite. No desire to socialize. Her afternoon walks ceased. Everything exhausted her, including walking from the bedroom to the kitchen. Needless to say, we were worried about this sudden decline.

Doctor’s appointments, emergency room visits, and a lack of progress resulted in a four-day hospital stay. A normally upbeat, energetic octogenarian was transformed into a lethargic, fatalistic, and moody shadow of a person formerly known as Mom.

The diagnosis: A tick bite—the tiniest extended chomp—was the catalyst for babesiosis, described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as microscopic parasites that infect red blood cells. Once identified, a prolonged course of treatment brought my mother back to her real self. The turning point was when I told her we were going to the ocean that afternoon, even for a few minutes. “If you don’t like it, we can always turn around and go for a ride,” I told her. But once she arrived at the beach, she began to rally even more, agreed to a short walk along the shore, and ate a clam cake to boot! I knew things were on the mend when she called me the next morning to see if we were going that afternoon as well.

My message? Sometimes it’s the small things that, though initially unnoticed, can cause the largest problems. Be mindful to take care of the small details in managing a school, running a classroom, or guiding a student. If left untreated, larger issues will prevail.

Another lesson learned? A little change of scenery, like the power of beach therapy, can have exponential effects. Moving the staff meeting to a venue, arranging a conference in a new space, or communicating with students in an unexpected place might just begin the transformation you desire.

Reading The Book of Eels

I often share with my school community whatever I am reading at any given time: a classic novel, a current popular fiction title, or my weekly play. A few years back, I shared my journey reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace from October through April. I received tremendous feedback and inquiry, in addition to modeling lifetime learning.

Nothing has been as curiosity-​stoking or unintentionally relevant to school in a pandemic than Patrik Svensson’s The Book of Eels, which provides multiple philosophical, historical, biological, and personal perspectives on this mystery sea creature.

Why share this book? Locally, I learned that the first Thanksgiving meal most likely served more eel than turkey: certainly an epiphany to my Massachusetts schools!

More importantly, I used this story at the beginning of a professional development day in October. Our daylong task at hand was to continue 2021 accreditation preparation through a series of locally based, guided tasks. Our accreditation process documents a school’s journey every 10 years while providing data to the community of its progress and plans for the next decade.

The message? Like the eel, schools are an enigma to many. The gift of time for teachers to meet, reflect, and document their community’s priorities will result in a clearer picture for all stakeholders in the community. And like Svensson’s bestseller, accreditation demystifies what school is and allows us the opportunity to chronicle and curate our evolution.

Other Stories

By the end of the nine days, I had shared many different stories about me as a school leader, teacher, director/coach, father, husband, and son. My staff learned I became an LGBTQ+ student advocate in the 1990s after a college friend passed away from complications of AIDS. They learned its parallels to our newly formed Equity Team in the district, how I modeled iteration under pressure to a classroom of sophomores when I entirely restaged a major musical duet hours before opening night, and how a new student to the school with profound communication disabilities taught me how not to take myself too seriously (as well as his powerful economy of words when he left my school at the age of 22).

These stories shared slices of my life, whether personal or professional. Each story was purposely selected to highlight the specific tasks of the day—and each became an opportunity for my faculty and staff to see me in a different light and make a deeper connection. We are now at the point that people will tell me the day of a faculty gathering that they are excited to hear today’s story.

With personalized tales and purposeful messaging, we create a more enlightened, engaged school community. In COVID-19 times, it’s so easy to get down and dwell on what we cannot have at school. Look at the possibilities when we iterate and transform something that a pandemic cannot alter: our voice.

By the way, people still ask me at school how my mother is doing. Much better, thankfully. We went to the beach many times in July and August. We took long walks along the Atlantic Ocean. And we ate many clam cakes together. Still, we couldn’t spend Thanksgiving with her because of COVID-19. She wasn’t happy.

But that’s another story.

Brian McCann is in his 17th year as the principal of Joseph Case High School in Swansea, MA, from which he graduated in 1980. He is a 2018 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year.