Special Teachers Are (Story) Gems

I vividly remember the day in third grade when a teacher touched my life. Done with my classwork and tired of staring out at the dreary landscape of late fall in Wisconsin, I wandered over to the bookshelves to browse the books.

When Mrs. Athnos came over, I thought I was in trouble … for leaving my desk … for daydreaming … for looking at books. What had I done wrong? My heart raced, my face turned red.

It turned out that I was not being punished. Instead my sweet, gentle teacher quelled my fears as she explained her idea for the class to put on a play about Laura Ingalls Wilder. It took a while before I realized that she was asking me to work with her to plan this classroom experience. Like many childhood memories, most details are vague, but I will always remember how Mrs. Athnos made me feel. She brought me out of my shy, reserved shell by helping her plan the play. She inspired me—and the whole class—to imagine pioneer life in the 1800s and brought out some of my leadership traits. I threw myself into the project—enjoyed staying after class—it was motivating to learn history through play-acting rather than reading.

Reflecting back, this story illustrates how a leader (or teacher) can inspire higher levels of performance by giving employees (or students) a special challenge and supporting them to achieve it. It also reveals how immersing in a story can help both kids and adults understand a situation in a new way.

Your Story Treasure Chest

 My daughter is pursing a career in elementary education at a time when public school education is widely viewed as a tax burden. I’m proud of her for following her heart into this noble profession. And I give tribute to all the teachers who touched my life by sharing this story gem from my elementary education.

Everyone’s life contains a treasure trove of experiences that can be turned into stories. Inspired by two books, Telling Your Own Stories and The Power of Personal Storytelling, I developed a series of tools, “Mining for Stories,” to help people fill their own treasure chest of story ideas. Using a three-step approach, you can turn episodes from your life into meaningful stories for business communications.

Step 1:  Unearth Your Story Gems—To get started, skim through the story prompts below to see if any of them spark a memory or a “story gem.” Story gems are raw story ideas that can be polished and applied to business situations. Search the four pathways (people, places, events, and objects) to discover as many story gems as you can. At this point, don’t worry about capturing the whole story—just the essence of it. Jot down any story gems that come to mind.


  • Teacher you’ll never forget
  • Boss who gave you harsh feedback you needed
  • Loyal friend who stuck up for you
  • Colorful roommate
  • Someone you once hero-worshipped


  • Favorite place that gives you comfort
  • Unfamiliar place that once scared you
  • Place that inspires your imagination
  • Place that makes you feel small


  • Flunking a test
  • First job interview
  • Leaving for college
  • Narrow escape from disaster
  • How you met your spouse


  • First car
  • Something you lost or broke
  • Cherished gift
  • Frivolous purchase
  • Favorite food

Step 2:  Find the Deeper Meaning—Select a story gem and examine it from different angles to extract its meaning. Reflect on the various meanings your story might convey—many stories have more than one. Jot them all down. Perhaps your story gem might convey:

  • A core value
  • Lesson learned
  • Mistake you made
  • Person who shaped your life
  • Where you find comfort/satisfaction
  • How you overcame a challenge

Step 3:  Find Connection to Work—Ponder how the meanings/messages might apply to a business situation. For example, a favorite-place story could set the tone for a warm, welcoming kick-off to a team event. A story about getting lost (and, then, finding your way) uncovers insights about innovation and problem solving. Finding lost luggage in a foreign airport shows how one might cope with a crisis that is compounded by communication barriers. My “memorable teacher” story reveals a leadership lesson about how believing in someone can help them stretch and grow. Do you see any other connections?

If you’re seeking stories to spice up a presentation, coach an employee, or convey your leadership values, use the “Mining for Stories” tools (available on www.storlietelling.com) to turn story gems from your personal experience into meaningful stories for your work. Story gems often tumble out during campfires, happy hours, and casual conversations. Grab these gems and store them someplace where they can be retrieved and polished later.

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