Our greatest teacher-trainer-learners often turn out to be wonderful storytellers. Through their stories, they provide a context for our own learning. They engage us and inspire us. And they transform us. So when innovative teaching, learning, and leadership consultant, speaker, and author George Couros published a collection of stories by teachers—Because of a Teacher: Stories of the Past to Inspire the Future of Education—last year, we just had to know we were in for a treat: a collection of stories by storytellers who incorporate storytelling in their work. It’s as if we were invited to an evening of stories by some of our best peers.
We recognize, as we dive into the opening pages of the book, that we are in for a real treat. And Couros and his co-conspirators in producing this wonderfully engaging evening of learning with the storytellers do not let us down for even a moment. We know, from the title, that we’re going to be hearing teachers talk about the art of teaching; those of us involved in lifelong learning as trainer-teacher-learners recognize that we are with kindred spirits as we spend time with those teachers working in formal academic settings. We also know, if we are familiar with Couros’s “Three Questions on Educators That Inspire” series on his Innovator’s Mindset podcast, that those stories, as Couros himself writes, “have the potential to help improve current practice. And they can inspire current teachers while honoring the educators who once inspired them” (p. 3).
Certain themes flow consistently through the book. The teachers with whom we are spending time acknowledge the support they have received, throughout their careers, from peers, mentors, and administrators. They consistently cite the power of collaboration with their peers and with their learners. They are, themselves, consummate learners who learn from their own mistakes and recognize that the temporary failures we all face are part of our lifelong learning endeavors and actually make us more appealing and accessible to our own learners because, through our actions and admissions, acknowledge that we, too, are human and fallible.
There’s something absolutely universal and appealing about many of the stories, and I found myself appreciating the pleasant, transformative experiences I have been lucky enough to have had as I read these storytellers’ variations on the themes we shared. Steve Bollar, in his “The Art of Relationships” chapter, for example, recalls how his art teacher nurtured his growth by providing a safe space—her classroom—for him to work before the formal beginning of the school day. When he suggested “letting a few of my friends hang out in the morning with me,” the teacher readily agreed so that, “by the end of the school year, there was a sizable group of students hanging out in the art room before the school day began.” Hearing that story produce an effect akin to being struck by a (non-fatal) bolt of lightning, for it vividly brough back memories of the high school history teacher who provided a similarly safe and stimulating meeting place for many of us when we were in school. Furthermore, it brought back memories of how creatively that teacher approached his own efforts to nurture our growth as learners and how it created a lifelong desire for me, in working with my own (adult) learners in a variety of settings, to create those same types of open, welcoming, dynamic learning spaces that produce the results my co-conspirators in learning and I produce whenever we meet face to face or online.
There are numerous gems among the gorgeous stories. Deidre Roemer, for example, reminds us that “the power of a caring teacher can be felt for a lifetime” in her “Inspiration for a Lifetime and Beyond” story (p. 33). “Making students feel welcome in their learning environment is a critical first step for building strong, lasting relationships as an educator,” Mary Hemphill writes in “Teaching Full Circle” (p. 36). “It’s all about relationships,” Tom Murray remembers hearing a cherished mentor say in “Fingerprints of Impact: The Legacy of a Mentor.” “‘If you make that the core of all you do, you’ll have amazing success in your career’” (p. 43).
The first third of the book, capturing stories about the teachers who inspired these teachers-as-storytellers, leads us naturally into the second section: stories about administrators who inspired our peers in Because of a Teacher. Couros himself sets a nice tone for that section in his opening story, “When Someone Believes in You.” He recalls feeling as if he had completely destroyed his chances of being hired into an assistant principal position by being drawn into serious arguments during his interview for the position. Discovering not long afterward that he was being offered the job because the principle wanted someone who would disagree with him when disagreement was productive, Couros walked away with a valuable lesson: “Archie [Lillico, the principal who hired Couros as his assistant principal] and I had a ton of disagreements in our time together, and that made us both better at our work. Isn’t that the point of education? Shouldn’t we want to learn new ideas and take actions to best grow in our pursuits?” (p. 56)
Couros, one page later, recalls an earlier interview completely comprised of talking “about the things that made me passionate and the things that excited me. It felt less like an interview and more like a conversation about education with colleagues in a staff room. Looking back on it, I realize that was intentional. The typical interview process doesn’t happen often in our everyday practice, but those conversations do. How we interact in those spaces really matters.”
We read (and hear) these words. We reflect on what they suggest to us. We feel inspired by them and want to immediately work them into our own practices. And by the time we finish reading the book and relishing what the stories suggest to us in terms of possibilities in our lifelong learning landscapes, we realize we have absorbed what Couros and his colleagues set out to offer us. We are better off then we were before we picked up the book. Because of a teacher.