Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Telling your story

Today, with war raging in Ukraine following the country being invaded by Russia, one very brave Russian journalist spoke out.  Marina Ovsyannikova, who works at the Russian Channel 1 TV news, decided she wanted to tell her story.  In a video she explained that her father was from Ukraine and her mother from Russia. She referred to the Ukrainians as her "brothers" and because it is now illegal to refer to the Russian invasion of another country as a war, she decided to protest on a live news programme because with such strict censorship in the country it was the only way she could get her message out.  She therefore walked into the news broadcast with a sign saying "NO WAR".  She called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a war and urged ordinary Russian people to protest against it.  Knowing what has happened to other protesters in Russia, she is a remarkably brave woman to speak out against what she referred to as a fratricidal war.

This story set the scene as I was reading the next chapter in the book Onward for the PYP Bookclub.  Actually this chapter was more about the stories we tell ourselves, and how through empowering stories we can create optimism, however the protest on Russian TV resonated with my reading because one of the things we are challenged to do is to "tell the story of what is happening.  If you don't, other people will do it for you and you might not like their narrative."

So let's have a think about the stories we tell ourselves now .... Elena Aguilar writes "If you want to shift the way you feel, you must shift the way you think".  This is not so easy to do, especially as many of us engage in unhelpful, distorted thinking - and these patterns of thought are difficult to see because they are habitual - we have thought like this for many years and so we are not even aware of them anymore.  Examples of distorted thinking include black and white thinking (the sort of all or nothing thinking where there is no middle ground), jumping to conclusions without knowing all the facts, having unrealistic expectations, excessively focusing on the negative aspects of a person, situation or experience, seeing worst-case scenarios and personalisation of any negative thoughts (thinking "it must be my fault").  Basically if we want to abandon these stories that don't serve us, we need to craft some new stories or mental models that we want to live in.

The first suggestion for doing this is to try using affirmations - to push your brain to form new clusters of "positive thought" neurons.  For example you can tell yourself that difficult times pass and that you will get through this.  You can tell yourself that you are valuable.  You can tell yourself that every day you are becoming a better teacher.

Another suggestion is intention setting where you make a statement about how you are going to experience something.  For example you can tell yourself that you are going to be kind and patient, or that you are going to be listening carefully in collaborative planning meetings.  Setting an intention tells you how YOU want to be in a situation and that is something that you do have control over.  There is a wonderful quote shared in this chapter from Rebecca Solnit:

A free person tells her own story.  A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.

Returning to the start of this blog post, we do need to consider stories being told and the truth behind them.  For example throughout history people have told dehumanising narratives to disempower others - a good example of this is the colonial powers who crafted stories about the cognitive inferiority of the inhabitants of those places they colonised as a way of justifying their exploitation.  Stories are being told right now about people in Ukraine being neo-Nazis as a way of Russia justifying invading their country.  Destructive dominant narratives silence the stories of others.  In the example of Maria Ovsyannikova, she now says "I'm ashamed that I allowed myself to tell lies from the television screen."  In Russia right now, true stories about the war are being silenced, discredited and destroyed.  However, there is hope.  Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us that stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that dignity.  Listening to the stories of others can be an act of solidarity.

As a coach I'm asking myself what do I do when I hear viewpoints in coaching conversations that I disagree with.  How can I listen to these stories with an open heart and an open mind?  How can I attempt to understand why someone believes something that I know to be false?  In fact Aguilar tells us that we don't have to agree, we simply need to listen to what a person thinks and to be curious about where these beliefs come from.  

Within schools there are lots of stories and lots of areas where people disagree.  Examples include what to teach, how to teach, what is worth assessing, how best to manage student behaviour and so on.  Generally we are not good at talking about these things that we disagree with.  However we do need to examine some of these assumptions about schools and also we need to be aware of the stories we are telling ourselves.  Every time we interpret an event we craft a story.  We can choose to craft a story that boosts our resilience or we can choose to tell a story that depletes it.  As Aguilar writes, "the stories we craft predict our futures, encapsulate our legacies and impact our resilience.  You have a choice, so tell powerful stories."

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