Ten years ago as I prepared for my first year as an elementary principal, I thought about the school culture and envisioned a warm, caring, joyful atmosphere where students supported each other, enthusiasm was contagious and every day spelled success. I knew how fortunate I was to have a staff that already strived for this and that as the “new kid”in my school, I would be warmly received and soon be part of their culture.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided that I should articulate this message to my students and staff. Afterall, you only get to make one first impression, and I wanted it to be positive and foster trust in me as a person and as their principal. Having a first-day assembly would be a good way to greet my students, reveal what I feel is important about school and help them get to know me a little better. As I prepared for this self-imposed tall order, I recalled a story relayed to me by one of my Seneca colleagues. I retell it in my own words below as best I can.
“A wise parent called her quarreling children to gather to her – she had something to give them. The hopeful and excited children sat before her, but became puzzled as she gave each child a stick. Holding up her own single stick, she asked which of her children could easily snap it in two? Her children agreed that even the youngest among them would be able to break the slender stick easily. So she handed the youngest the stick and she did indeed successfully break it in two on the first try. Then she held up another stick and told her children to bind all their individual sticks together around the stick she held. When they were done, she gave the bundle to the eldest and strongest son and told him to break the sticks. Try as he might, he could not break even a single stick in the bundle. The wise parent then explained in life there are good times and bad. During bad times each person alone is like a single stick, easily broken. But when you have a family, no matter what happens, you are not alone and your family supports you. Your brothers and sisters are your family. You need to stop your quarrels and cherish one another so you will have a family when bad times come and you need them.”
This resonated with my First Day assembly message “A School is Not a Building” and so I planned to perform the demonstration of our “school family” as the wise Seneca parent did in the story. Often with children to keep them focused on the message of doing good, you have to be careful that your choice of words doesn’t make their thoughts stray to their own experiences or worries. I liked the Bundle of Sticks story because I would have a physical object for them to focus on, actions to observe and I didn’t have to use the word “bully” at all, though the message is pretty clear that to cherish one another means no one bullies anyone.
Not only did my students applaud and laugh at the right places in my demonstration, but every child remembered the story of The Bundle of Sticks throughout the school year and beyond. It was a handy reference point in my conversations with students with peer relationship problems and became a part of our school culture. I heard the story had spread to parents in our school community and this helped me establish relationships as a new principal too.
In the training I provide, I speak about the importance of relationship-building with children and the powerful impact that a teacher’s relationship with each student has on that child’s learning. Stories like the one my Seneca friend shared are the best and most memorable way for teachers to have a difficult conversation in a non-threatening way and with the greatest, long-lasting benefits.
The Wisdom that “comes with age”, is carried on the backs of a great story.