In a school environment, a place where the education of the child is paramount, it is the attitudes and self-awareness of the teachers, administration, and parents that can often alter the atmosphere immeasurably, and allow real learning to take place. Learning does not consist solely of academic subjects, the arts, technical skills, and sports, but encompasses skills and ideas that can change an entire experience of a life down to its very core. Any school whose mission endeavors to be a “community of kindness” has its heart in the right place, but since a school community is made up of human beings, and human beings are complicated, sometimes minds can get stuck in stories of unkindness toward each other, without even being aware of the disconnection.
Building a healthy social-emotional school community involves several components: Identifying dysfunctional patterns, fostering strong interpersonal dynamics, clear communication skills and strategies, a conflict resolution plan, honesty, a focus on compassion and empathy, and a willingness to create a stronger school community for students, parents, faculty, and administration. By understanding the patterns of how and why we interact, with an emphasis on empathy and the stories we believe about ourselves, and each other, an authentic community of kindness can be realized.
Unstorying is a process in which a person, or a group, can first see these stories as constructed, and then, if willing, choose to see alternate stories, or eventually, be comfortable with no story at all; to endeavor to understand how and why the mind constructs these stories in the first place, and the vice-like grip it has on what we believe to be truth. The mind’s narrative is created through an initial experience, consisting of incoming sensory experiences, which in turn are interpreted through past thoughts and experiences – judgments, wounds, lessons learned – and then filtered through reactive thoughts, which consists of more interpretation, and then retold in a manner that best expresses the point you are trying to make to effect a response in the “other” on the listening end. If enough thoughts gel together closely enough, they create a construct – a matrix of identifications that form into the concept of a person and their personality, personal history, and interpersonal relationships. The thoughts create the reality, and the reality becomes the narrative that you live by. People see the world vastly differently from one another. And while the physical world may, for the most part, be seen to be the same, each person’s interpretations and derived meanings of objects and experiences vary greatly. This is where the concept of projection comes in. According to Anais Nin, “We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.” The particular wounds we carry in our own personal storylines inform the outward interpretation of the world around us, and these interpretive images consist of archetypal symbols and metaphors. Our identity, both internally and externally is guided by these images, and those same images projected outwards become our interpretations of others. According to C.G. Jung, “The effect of projection is to isolate the subject from his environment, since instead of a real relation to it, there is now only an illusory one. Projections change the world into the replica of one’s own unknown face.” In other words, we experience others through this lens of our own story, whether we are aware of it or not. This circuit of reflections has no end, as our interactions with each other are experienced through this illusory view of the world, and therefore are indelibly linked to each other’s interpretive view of reality.
Unstorying contains these very simple, but very challenging ideas: When a reactive response occurs, and a judgment is made about someone or something, look to see whether it is absolutely true. Look to see why we might see it that way, and if what we are seeing is an interpretive assessment or an objective assessment. There are actually, surprisingly, very few objective assessments, much fewer than most of us would wish to imagine. If my opinion of myself or of another, or a situation, is a reactive judgment, then how do I know I am seeing them, or me, clearly? The second integral component is compassion. This compassion is not “niceness.” It emanates out of knowing that everyone is only operating out of his or her own stories, for the most part, completely unaware of this.
So how does this apply to a school community? Often, one group at a school will have an expectation of another group, such as parents towards teachers or administrators, or teachers towards administrators or parents, and so forth. When something occurs at a school, often there is an immediate reaction to how something “should have been done” or that someone “did something wrong.” This is often when an expectation of an action or behavior does not meet the expected response. Considering that our children are not only an important part of us, but we are tied in to them emotionally as well, everything becomes much more personal. When it feels that someone is not hearing us or that they are acting unfair, we react to that underlying story.
Many times, all it takes is a moment to ask why someone did something a certain way or made a particular decision. If one could step outside their judgment story, they might find that the decision made, or action taken, made sense and was a good call after all. Instead of giving people the benefit of the doubt, they jump to a story about why that person did that and assign malevolent or ignorant motivations when the truth may be much more innocent and benevolent. Ultimately, it once again boils down to stories.
What we believe about each other in our school community, or how we react to each other and others to us, affects the students’ school experience. What if everyone just assumed that we were all in this together? What if there were no us vs. them? That would be the epitome of a healthy school community. This is fairly common in any community, and that goes doubly so for educational communities.
What is important to ask ourselves is are we willing to step outside of our stories about each other and focus instead on what is most important – the education and well-being of our students and children. By being willing to look at how we carry around our stories of people and situations, we can more clearly and authentically interact with each other, and this, in turn, allows for more compassion and empathy in the school environment between all parties involved. So the next time a situation arises that brings about a strong emotional reaction, try to see what is the underlying story. Are you feeling like you bare not getting what you need, that you are not being heard, or that someone doesn’t care? If so, it may be that the current situation only appears that way because of the initial emotional reaction. Take the time to really find out, without the emotional charge, what has occurred, and then respond rather than react to whatever arises. This ability to respond clearly and productively can make the difference between a good decision and a poor decision, as well as perpetuate a constructed story of what you “thought” happened, rather than what was actually occurring. This process creates an authentic interaction, one in which compassion, empathy, and respect play a role. What a wonderful way to model healthy behavior and relationships with our children. What a wonderful way to interact in our daily lives. This is what enables a community of kindness to flourish, and in whatever community you may find yourself. Unstorying is not the absence of all story; it is the awareness that there is a story guiding how we are interpreting our world around us, and the willingness to have the vigilance to clearly see the stories we are living.
For more information, please contact Dr. Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org
 This quote has been attributed to Anais Nin, Seduction of the Minotaur, 124, although it has also been attributed to the Talmud.
 C.G. Jung, “The Shadow,” CW 9ii, para 17.
 Miller, Nicole. “Life is But a Story: A Depth Psychological, Religious, Philosophical, and Pop Cultural Perspective on Reality.” Not Ever Absent: Storytelling in Arts, Culture, and Identity Formation. Inter-disciplinary Press. 2013.