Telling Stories and Asking Why

By Kyle Hietala, UELIP WordPress Editor, Summer ’17

This summer, I’ve taken it upon myself to become a storyteller, of sorts, about this program and its participants. I’ve sat down with dozens of my fellow UELIP Associates and asked them a range of questions–some bread and butter about their interest in education, others curveballs about themselves, their quirks, their frustrations, and their dreams. My interviews have been delightful, not because I like hearing about my fellow Associates’ summer work (though I do), not because I like hearing about my fellow Associates’ reflections on working for a large urban public school district (though I do), but primarily because I like hearing my fellow Associates’ stories.

I judge the success of my interviews and the strength of my written pieces about my colleagues based on the extent to which I asked and got answers to the “why” questions. “You want to become a teacher,” I’ll say. But then I’ll follow it up with, “why?” If I get a cliche, (e.g. make a difference, help kids to grow, improve society, etc.), I’ll pry more. “So why do you want to make a difference?” I’ll query. I wonder if my colleagues find me difficult or even rude, because I incessantly ask them “why?” in response to just about whatever response they offer.

Perhaps the greatest misconception I’ve come across is that when I ask “why,” I expect a clear and detailed answer in response. In truth, I never know what to expect, and so I have no expectations, at all. The most interesting conversations I’ve had have been when I’ve gotten a candid “I’m not sure” or an “I don’t know” in response. I think these answers are genuine and profound, equally as meaningful as carefully thought-out answers that reflect a found and followed passion. I appreciate the uncertain and unclear answers because they allow for the most candid exploration. No one has said “I’m not sure” or “I don’t know” and stopped talking; instead, they start to tell a story.

These stories usually reflect nuance and conflicting and competing interests, passions, and dreams. They are refreshing because they show moments of self-doubt, yet perseverance to continue searching for the right words to articulate their passion. From these admissions spring the most sincere and believable stories. Many great stories begin with a clear purpose and move linearly, but many great stories do not.

As an interviewer this summer, I’ve begun my storytelling without any direction or expectation other than a desire to find out why my colleagues do what they do. What I’ve learned is that the first few minutes of a response to a “why?” question aren’t usually the most meaningful. It’s in the latter minutes, when the rehearsed responses have been exhausted, when the doubts and hesitations have been overcome, and the comfort of predictability has been left behind that the good stuff really comes out. And this is the stuff of good stories.

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