There are three types of teachers I remember from my time spent at school
- The quirky teachers who had some unusual, albeit memorable habits, like my high-school English teacher who would simply not tolerate any student walking behind her chair whenever she was seated in the classroom,
- Another who used everyday classroom materials as resources (chalk, board eraser, a half drank water bottle, a packet of peanuts etc.) to explain abstract concepts like plate tectonics in physical geography and,
- The teachers who shared a personal story that was humorous or serendipitous which gave pupils glimpses into their regular lives and adventures beyond being subject or knowledge experts.
On reflection, the benefits for me as a student are that these anecdotes of peculiarities are the ones that populate my memory of the experience of schooling and fill me with fond memories of those teachers and classify my time as a student. Though, having become an educator, I have rarely considered how my own anecdotes in teaching influence my students, and even less so on how they have helped enhance my teaching skills. The following are a few deliberations on the prospect of using anecdotes, or actively engaging in storytelling, as a potential style that might be worthy of incorporating into your practice:
How to use anecdotes if you’re a private person?
Our personalities play a significant part in determining how comfortable we are with sharing anecdotes or using storytelling as a mode of instruction or practice. I remember having a conversation with a colleague in HE who was very approachable in the classroom and used current events through the news or politics to help contextualise examples in their teaching. One day over coffee she made a key observation that I was more likely to spontaneously share a personal experience or relative anecdote with our students, whereas that was not her style or a comfortable space for her as a teacher.
She explained that keeping her private experiences outside of the classroom helped her to maintain a professional persona that clearly demarcated her role in the classroom from that of being a colleague or furthermore from that of being a close confidante or friend. Upon further investigation, more educators who described themselves as being introverted expressed similar boundaries when it came to sharing personal stories with students.
It is not unusual and, in many spaces, a preferred approach by practitioners, particularly in high school or university like settings to be conscious of personal anecdotes. On the other hand, we also note there are some teachers in HE who share perhaps too much of their personal lives in the classroom, so the important message is about striking a balance that is relevant, appropriate and comfortable. Anecdotes are usually quite effective in HE as the classrooms of students are usually quite large and many people are not acquainted with each other. If anything, my self-acclaimed introverted colleagues suggest personal anecdotes are effective and perhaps the most important takeaway is preparation. In other words, preparing anecdotes in the form of recycled stories might be a more comfortable approach to use in classes that are both relatable and relative to the lesson content.
Are personal anecdotes effective in HE?
In HE teaching it is difficult when working with groups of students you do not know personally, to share personal stories that might be taken out of context or even cause some offence, especially with students from different cultural backgrounds. In primary or secondary education teachers get to spend an entire academic year bonding with their cohort of pupils, but in HE on average, a 10-week course, over a semester with minimal contact hours does set a unique challenge to make a personal connection with students (many of whom will complete the programme and you might still not know on a first name basis).
Perhaps this larger class size and level of unfamiliarity in an HE course is more reason to use storytelling as a mode of breaking the ice and get the class engaged and invested in discussion. For instance, I remember working with a group of shy female Muslim students who were not comfortable speaking up or sharing their ideas in the class. So I started one lesson by sharing stories of my childhood experiences of celebrating Eid-ul-Fitr in Trinidad and as anticipated their faces lit up with awe that their cultural practices and religious beliefs could be understood by their teacher. In turn, this opened up a relatively shy group of females, to speak up more about recipes and practices and this helped them open up more in our group sessions to speak about ideas they had in relation to the learning objectives. It comes as no surprise the benefit was mutual because in classes where I am likely to struggle to recall a students’ name often a story or anecdote helps me recall something that is unique to that particular student.
The mutual benefits of using storytelling in our teaching:
Over the years of teaching, I have found anecdotes to be a pedagogical superpower for both students and teachers. When utilised effectively, it can organically attend to our basic psychological needs for:
- Relatedness – storytelling is an effective means for establishing a connection in shared spaces or modules. For teachers, it can break down barriers of inaccessibility between concepts and humanise the learning space to be one of comfort and safety. Likewise, for students storytelling can help foster a sense of belonging and kinship amongst their peers establishing a steady foundation on which to ground one’s purpose and place.
- Competence – often anecdotes can be humorous or emotionally uplifting, which encourages our motivation and ability to believe in ourselves to comprehend and invest in our learning. When teachers share their wonderment of engaging with new knowledge and perhaps their mishaps and challenges with grappling with understanding, this opens up new doors for students to share their own stories about challenges. It also gives you more insights into how they approach mastering their skills, versus their likeliness to abandon the task or procrastinate.
- Autonomy – the freedom to express narratives that illuminates some sides of our personalities, that are perhaps not fully associated with a particular lesson. For instance, stories that might have flavours of embarrassment, uncertainties or shame can be both humbling and humanise our experiences as both teachers and students. This autonomy can open creative avenues to make connections and establish novel meanings to knowledge, which can act as a bridge for building a unique relationship between both teacher and students, in a common space.
For more articles related to teaching methods see:
- Balancing Academic Research and Teaching
- Teaching Qualifications For HE: What Are Your Options?
- Teaching From the Podium
- Constructivist Approaches to Teaching and Learning