The Power of Stories and Self-Worth

Guest Correspondence

For 16 years, I have taught English at public and private high schools. Storytelling plays a central role in what I do. I am struck by the works of Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Langston Hughes and so many others, but am equally fascinated by the stories my students tell about themselves. 

Narratives matter. The stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we internalize and perhaps never share, the stories others tell about us and those stories we encounter everywhere — on social media, on TV, in music, at the store— all profoundly affect how we perceive ourselves and progress through life. 

Last year, I began graduate studies through the Johns Hopkins School of Education’s Mind, Brain and Teaching program. In my research, I am exploring how self-worth is an essential, indeed predominant, factor in student engagement and achievement. I am also looking at how narrative determines self-worth.

My studies expand and deepen my appreciation for the role of stories in our lives and how I experience their power every day in the classroom. Students with a high sense of self-worth—with stories that confirm their positive, healthier sense of self—are much more apt to engage meaningfully with the material. They are better equipped to weather setbacks and succeed. They’re more resilient. I see it all the time, and research bears it out. 

A focus for improving student achievement, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic, has been intensive learning and remediation. Both are essential tools in helping students make up for lost learning and in preparing them to succeed academically.

Equally important is the holistic development of students in which they have a strong sense of self-worth and purpose. When students believe they can achieve their goals, when their own stories and the stories of others confirm those beliefs, they are more apt to grow. Belief in oneself and in what they are doing is vital to a growth mindset.

In a world that to many students feels increasingly unsteady, resilience is essential. Schools across the country are facing a student mental health crisis, one I see in my own classroom. I see a range of issues from disinterest in learning and engaging in school to severe depression. As a mother and a teacher, I am troubled by this crisis and understand the urgent need to support students and help them develop their sense of self-worth. 

Students must feel valued, and of course teachers too. When teachers feel valued, they are more likely to model respect, enthusiasm and care. They are likely to create safe environments where all students know their teachers value them and will illuminate their potential—a place where learning makes more sense. 

Many students with unstable or unhealthy homelives take refuge in welcoming classrooms where teachers care about all their students provide essential stability and love some desperately crave and need. Through compassion and encouragement, teachers help these students understand the missing story about their own self-worth. 

When those stories are confirmed by other teachers and trusting adults, self-worth grows stronger and can better withstand negative stories. It’s essential students, especially those most underserved, can access relationships that affirm their potential and reinforce stories of value and possibility. 

For five years, I served on the board of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County, first as a teacher representative and now a general board member. I am honored to help guide and support an organization that so values the voices of educators and works to support a holistic approach to student success grounded in the power of relationships to transform lives.

Today, I am excited to be part of a task force within the Education Foundation developing new ways to connect at-risk students to caring adults who will help them change the narrative from one of failure to one of success. It seeks to improve student achievement through life readiness and resilience. I’m inspired by the work I have seen through student success coaching, where a trusting, caring adult helps students formulate stories of success and then connects them to the resources they need to help achieve it. The faith these coaches have in students makes a difference.

One of the joys of reading, I teach my students, is that stories are never fixed. Our understanding of stories changes. Our experiences color the way we interpret the actions of characters in a text—and that understanding can evolve. Just like the most memorable characters in literature, people change. They can recover. They can move on. They can succeed. That’s the story all students deserve to hear.

Do you recognize the value of connecting students to caring adults and changing the narrative? Learn about joining our efforts at the Education Foundation. You can make a difference:

Es Swihart is a board member of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County and 2018 Sarasota County Schools Teacher of the Year.

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