January/February 2020

Leadership Letter: Stories are for Telling

By Thomas E. Bertrand

The last school event that I attended as a district superintendent in 2018 was high school graduation. It was my final occasion following a hectic week that closed out my 26 years in the school district. I recall the physical and emotional drain that I felt that week. I must admit that I was not looking forward to attending a student’s graduation party following the ceremony.

However, this invitation came from David.

David, an 18-year-old with Down Syndrome, worked part-time in our district office. David’s a big guy. But, he is a Teddy Bear — as gentle and kind a soul as you will meet. I would playfully tease David about the fact that he was a Cardinal fan, talk with him about upcoming Marvel movies, and give him a little scare — as I am known to do on occasion. David responded in kind by attempting to scare me on several occasions. 

I knew that I could not miss David’s party, so I stopped on my way home from the graduation ceremony. When David saw me come through the door of the private room at the restaurant, he jumped up from his seat. He politely excused himself as he quickly worked his way from his table across the room. He greeted me with the kind of hug that one reserves for a long lost friend. He proceeded to introduce me as “Dr. B,” his “boss,” to every family member at the party. 

It was a final and decisive reminder of why I chose the path of an educator. What we do matters — regardless of our position in a school district. Leadership matters. 

I share this story often for two reasons. First, the small things that we do for one another and for our students make a much bigger impact than we can ever imagine. To quote Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” 

The other lesson is about the importance of sharing our stories. The culture of any organization is defined by the behavior of its members and is reinforced by the stories that members tell. When I told the story to my district staff on our last day of school following graduation, I connected it and aligned it to our strategic priority to connect every child with a caring, committed adult. 

What if — along with annual reports of test scores, student discipline, and attendance reports — we shared a story each month or quarter that reinforces what we believe, what we do on behalf of our children and our families? What are some of the events in your district’s history that illustrate the core values of the system and the good things that are happening for your students and families? Who are the staff who live out your values as an organization?

During my time as a superintendent, I found that many of these stories were known by staff, but never shared beyond a department or team meeting. It is important to have a system for capturing these stories. Think about how you can collect and archive these stories to share them with your stakeholders. There is so much good work happening in our schools and with the families we serve and stories strengthen our connection to our community and with one another. 

Thank you for all that you do in support of quality public education for nearly two million Illinois school children.
Thomas E. Bertrand, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Illinois Association of School Boards.