Once upon a time: calling forth folklore to better position your school

by Chanda Grubbs, CRANE writer 

The words of the bards come down the centuries to us,
warm with living breath.

–Padraig Pearse
Irish poet, educator, activist

once-upon-a-time

Whether you opened your doors 300 or 30 years ago, you’ve got tales to tell. And while some may be the stuff of myth, others present invaluable opportunities for adding depth and further authenticity to your messaging.

The stern but beloved teacher who was known to make classes run laps in the cold for not taking an assignment seriously symbolizes an enduring commitment to academics. The first athletic triumph over a rival recounts tenacity and a burgeoning sense of school spirit. And whispered rumors of “haunted” buildings before campus renovations mark the intentional transformation of your physical environment.

Yet, so many institutions’ stories begin elsewhere—with talk of “academic excellence” and a parade of numbers, facts, figures, and nice-enough platitudes.

So we propose a more powerful way to share your school’s enduring relevance. What if your school’s value proposition today could harken back to your school’s distinctive beginnings?

Finding your folklore

Consider this student’s recollection, of his first day of school at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Imagine the first class of the first day, six or eight children shuffling onto the downstairs porch to shake hands with their first teacher. I was noticing how my shoes grated on the concrete floor. My indifference vanished in a swirl of amazement when Mlle. Thioux said, “Bonjour,” to me. And began giving directions in French. That was the tone of Mrs. Hocking’s school, then but a marvelous experiment. Everything was over our heads all the time. But within reach. We were always pulling ourselves up to exciting new levels.

Beach erosion threatens seaside homes.

The sensory detail (shuffling downstairs, shoes grating on the concrete floor) mixed with almost mystical language (vanished in a swirl of amazement, a marvelous experiment) help crystallize this story as a very important moment in time. And more than 100 years later—this same immersive and enchanting learning thrives on Shady Hill’s campus, embodied in the school’s unique Central Subject approach.

And here’s a tale from Branksome Hall, an all-girls’ school in Toronto, told to us by an alum:

I was at a track meet a couple of years ago and another school’s tent started to blow away. All their girls just stood there screaming under the tent. Our girls said, why don’t they just hold onto the tent? A Branksome girl holds her own tent.

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 The elements of craft

All folklore contains three common elements: timeless relevance, a shared belief, and a memorable takeaway point or lesson.

Timeless relevance
The Shady Hill and Branksome Hall stories remain as meaningful today as 40 years ago (and as they will 40 years into the future) because they crystallize a moment that speaks powerfully to the very essence of the institution. A story that continues to be told by your community is a story worth telling, and retelling, to prospects.

Shared belief
Every school community holds distinctive values that influence how the school operates year after year. For Shady Hill, encouraging the imaginative, intellectual bravery of each incandescent mind, no matter a child’s age, represents a foundational principle of the school. In the case of Branksome Hall, the school community believes that young women should learn to be independent and courageous. Each story demonstrates a core belief, which not only reinforces internal cohesion but can serve to attract best-fit families.

Takeaway point
“A Branksome girl holds her own tent.” These seven words succinctly and memorably communicate one of the many transformative outcomes of a Branksome education.

Each story’s lesson holds an opportunity to communicate what your school and only your school instills in students.

Good stories transport us, change us, inspire, encourage, and teach. So when puzzling over how to convince another raft of prospective families that your school isn’t only great, but different, consider that an entire history of stories waits to be rediscovered, collected, and retold. The first step is to listen for them.