Skip to main content

Why storytelling can be a powerful tool in your arsenal - Tom Mudd

3rd August 2023

By Tom Mudd, Curriculum Manager - English 16-18, Barking & Dagenham College

Let me tell you a story:

I am currently studying for my PhD, examining the role that story plays in developing the human condition, and using tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons to highlight the power of oracy and collaborative storytelling. In the summer of 2022, I was fortunate enough to present this research at the ARPCE Conference held at Oxford University.

To say I was nervous was an understatement. As someone who has struggled with anxiety since my teenage years, the thought of presenting to academics at one of the most renowned universities in the world was almost too much to bear. However, I tried to focus on what an amazing opportunity it would be. I stood up in front of a room full of my peers and renowned researchers in my field, and I told my story of stories. There were nods of agreement at my points, polite laughs at my attempts at humour. Everything seemed to go by in a blur, and before I knew it my time was up. I said my closing words, and the audience clapped.

And I, a thirty-something male, curtsied. I don't know why. I put it down to panicking in the moment, caught between giving a brief bow and walking back to my seat. Somehow my body switched to autopilot and I curtsied.

This little story is something I have told many of my students over the last year, and every time it has been with purpose: to show that even I get very anxious still, but that the support I've had over the years has made my anxiety condition manageable; to show how poor grades at school do not mean that all paths become closed to you, as I had to resit a number of my exams, much like the GCSE resit learners I teach today. It has become an important tool in my teaching toolbox.

Stories are so very much a part of who we are. We are surrounded by stories. We are told them by friends, family, and colleagues. We read them in books, magazines, and comics. We take them on our commute on our ereaders, or stream them on our phones or TVs. They are a constant. And from many of these stories, we learn lessons. They may be small and subtle, or big and profound, but they are there. To quote my old forensic sciences lecturer at university: "every contact leaves a trace". This is true of stories. Take a moment to cast an eye over the other articles presented here on Think Further. How many contain anecdotes? These little stories that help give context, perspective, and valuable insight about those telling the story. And while we may not be able to see or hear the storyteller, their brief tales make them human in our mind's eye. They have thoughts and opinions, hope and dreams, concerns and fears.

In the classroom, stories give us a number of opportunities, and can be utilised by teachers to wonderful effect. Allow me to give you an example. At secondary school, my English teacher had been a former member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. While studying Hamlet in class, our teacher regaled us with a story of her former RSC colleague who, while performing Hamlet, had become quite sick. She proceeded to mimic his attempts to perform the famous "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy while heaving and desperately trying not to be sick on stage. This story, and the little bit of improv that accompanied it, had me and my classmates in stitches. Suddenly we learned, more than anything, that our teacher was capable of being funny. She had us in the palm of her hands after that, and would tell us more stories from her time as an actor, focusing mainly on the ones where things went wrong. And on top of that, I can still recite "To Be Or Not To Be" even now.

This story from my English teacher, and my one at the top of this piece, do something very important for our students: they humanise us. It's a moment of conscious and measured vulnerability that highlights that I am just a man, capable of achieving much and embarrassing himself in equal measure. Stories can make us more real for our students. They can help us to build a rapport. They can highlight the lessons we have learned in our past so that they can learn them now.

Care must obviously be taken when it comes to sharing details with our students. We don't want to tell them too much of our personal lives, or to cross any subject that may raise safeguarding issues. It is also important to know there are times and places for stories. Like the story of Odyseus and his crew sailing a narrow path to avoid the monsters Scylla and Charybdis, we need to avoid only telling stories that have educational purposes, or only telling stories for the sake of it. Treading the narrow narrative path can be tricky but ultimately worthwhile.

As much as we can, and should, tell our stories to our students, we can also offer them an opportunity to have their stories heard. We can help to give them the tools of oracy and confidence. We can take an interest when we ask what they got up to at the weekend. Many schools and colleges will have schemes to encourage students to engage in reading (such as Drop Everything And Read programme) and while this is a brilliant and important step to help engage learners and improve literacy, our primary source of sharing stories with one another is to talk. Finding even just a few minutes in a lesson to ask or be asked a question that might lead to a story or anecdote can do much for rapport and behaviour within the class. I have found this particularly useful. I teach GCSE English resit learners, many of whom are disengaged with learning after having failed to achieve a "standard pass" of a Grade 4 or above. By sharing stories and experience some of the barriers they bring begin to fall. I have found their perception of me shifts, from the "horrible bloke making us retake English" to "actually kinda alright". I'd take that second opinion of me over the first any day.But that shift is important. As a teacher, I become approachable and understanding. I have heard my student's stories, listened to their experiences, and have learned from it. My lessons start to change, shaped by what I have learned.

So, I encourage you, whenever you are able to in your teaching practice, take a moment and say to your students:

"Let me tell you a story".

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.