Sumant Rama Bhat. My name has seen numerous creative pronunciations over the years, but it also captures a great deal of my own personal story. The name Sumant comes from the name of a trusted advisor of King Dasharatha in the Hindu epic The Ramayana. Given my daily practice as an educator, that name seems fitting. Bhat is a Brahmin Hindu name, and throughout my life, Hinduism has shaped my values and daily practice. The middle name, Rama, is my dad’s name. As a professor of medicine and a relentlessly selfless and compassionate man, he has been a model for me to emulate.
Back in the fall of 2015, I had my school’s faculty make name cards and share their stories with one another. I picked up this exercise at The Meadowbrook School’s Multicultural Teaching Institute last summer. It proved to not only be a great icebreaker for new faculty, but also a great opportunity for those who have taught together for decades to learn something new about old friends.
Admittedly, during my first years of teaching, I thought little about my own story or the value of sharing windows into it. My energy was spent staying one day ahead of the kids in lesson planning and trying to make connections with students on surface-level interests like favorite sports teams or the latest top 25 iTunes song I had downloaded. I do not dismiss that there is value in that kind of sharing. However, I also recognize that pieces of my story got left out and could have helped students dealing with experiences similar to mine, from navigating being a minority to responding to hurtful comments about their religion.
Everyone has the right to determine what they wish to share with others about themselves. However, I think it is important that my colleagues and I create a school environment where it is OK for our students to tell their stories, what makes them unique. As part of our capstone Project 8 course, which focuses on self-reflection and identity, our eighth-graders have been sharing aloud their “This I Believe” essays with their classmates and families. In these essays, students connect their own core values to their personal narratives. From perseverance in sports to coming to terms with adoption and navigating the loss of family and loved ones, these stories have opened new connections between students.
I’ve seen firsthand how hearing stories from one another can help build previously unseen connections between individuals from different social circles. These stories often reveal what is beneath the surface for those around us, illuminating a depth of character and life experience that we could not possibly know otherwise. In doing so, they cultivate empathy by providing windows into experiences different from one’s own.
As a school, we have a limited number of hours a day to choose what we will teach our students, and our choices send implicit messages to our kids about what we do and do not value. Working on and sharing stories with some frequency sends the message that everyone’s story is of importance. It can also foster an appreciation and desire to seek out more about other’s stories, and perhaps motivate someone to delve deeper and reflect on their own experiences.
There are countless examples of individual personal stories—like Malala Yousafzai’s, Misty Copeland’s, Jason Collins’ and Caitlyn Jenner’s—that have raised awareness on various societal and world issues. Social media has radically amplified our ability to share stories that galvanize movements, but young students’ understanding of social media is often limited to snapping selfies, vacation photos and celebrations. Without authentic opportunities to explore their own stories and share them, the pressures for conformity have the potential to cause children and teens to reject that which makes them unique.
As we look at our school days, the time does exist to promote these rich experiences, and there’s no shortage of projects and curricula out there around personal narratives. From English and social studies to advisory and capstone projects, we have opportunities. As educators, the avenues to build an environment that fosters an appreciation for stories are multiple too. Utilizing our blog posts and newsletters, seizing teachable moments on outdoor trips and using assembly time all afford opportunities to promote the value of our kids’ stories and our own.
With every passing moment of our lives, we add characters, plot twists and lessons learned that help make our stories and us more interesting by the day. Why wouldn’t we want to share them one another?
Bhat is the head of the middle school at St. Anne's Episcopal School in Denver, Colorado, where he also co-chairs the school's Multiculturalism and Inclusion Committee.