Narratives have the power to move people and motivate change. We’ve seen this time and again. Although we value the storyteller and share their videos or written words far and wide, we sometimes forget that all narratives are created by data--if we expand our definition of what data can be.
When we consider “data” in independent schools, we often envision a complex database, a spreadsheet download, or an enormous file that has to be read, digested, and massaged into a presentation. That may be true of quantitative data, but qualitative data is collated and created every day. I recently had the chance to have a conversation with Joel Sohn, the Upper School Director at University Prep in Seattle. Joel has a unique lens. In his work, he describes looking for the data story. In fact, his hunt for data begins with building relationships. Joel knew that various campus offices had information he could use to help lead DEIB initiatives. He also knew that just saying “give me access to your files” wouldn’t get him far.
Instead, Joel sought to build relationships with individuals across campus, admissions, student life, libraries and more. He knew that all of them had smaller data sets that represent specific campus functions or constituent groups. The goal with this building relationships was to help colleagues understand that his goals were to improve the institution, not looking for a “gotcha.”
Once the trust was established; peer leaders on campus became co-researchers. For example student life had data on when students took leaves of absence or left campus early. Was there something to be learned about how that data merged with other information about students? Did students with a particular identity miss school during times that led to a greater impact on grades? Only with the right information could the story emerge that could inspire school leaders to improve the stories that needed to change, and celebrate those that were newly discovered.
What emerged during my conversation with Joel was his discovery that sometimes qualitative data can be the more powerful source of initiating and leading change. A spreadsheet full of numbers can feel distant from lived experiences, but the story of an individual student has the power to move people to understand that the need for change is urgent and requires action.
What data stories are there, hidden at your school, waiting for you and your colleagues to find and share?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)