Teaching by storytelling

I was in Portland, Oregon recently, teaching my “Safe at Home” off duty survival class to a room full of high-speed narcotics cops. Addressing a bit of an intimidating audience, I knew I had to grab their attention right from the beginning, and I had to hold it for nearly four hours, so I decided to tell them some stories.

Whether you’re in the classroom, in roll call, or in a squad car sitting next to a new rookie, storytelling is an excellent method of training. If you’re a field training officer, a couple of well-placed stories during those “teachable moments” on shift can make a great impact on your recruit. As a supervisor or manager who conducts a roll call or shift briefing each day, you can use stories to present messages on officer survival, leadership, ethics, or service to the community. As a police trainer, storytelling is an invaluable tool in the classroom. And there is no better way to honor our fallen and our injured than to tell their stories.

Why are stories so powerful in a learning environment? Professor Kieran Egan, author of Teaching as Story Telling, writes that using storytelling as an educational tool begins with very young children. Bucking the accepted but rather staid child educational theories of Jean Piaget, Egan believes that by focusing on imaginative intellectual activity, educators can use stories and fantasy to help children understand a concept and retain in more effectively. Transferring this theory to adult learners is quite simple, and extremely effective. For example, let’s say I tell you that if you don’t call in every traffic stop you run the risk of your co-workers not being able to find you (or even know you’re in trouble) until it’s too late. You will intellectually understand that concept but you may not emotionally relate to it.

What would happen however, if I tell you the story of twenty five year old Officer Anthony Raymond of the Hillside, IL Police Department who, in 1972 was abducted after he stopped two men who – unbeknownst to him – had just committed an armed robbery. Officer Raymond was stabbed, but not fatally, and then taken to the home of one of the suspects. He was eventually strangled to death, stuffed in a 55 gallon drum, and buried in a Wisconsin field. Because he did not call in his stop, there was a significant delay in discovering that he had been abducted, and there was no vehicle description, licenses plate or any other information immediately available to help locate Officer Raymond. I first heard that story in 1981 in the police academy, and to this day, I still imagine that handsome 23 year old cop, the terror he must have felt, and the frustration of his fellow officers who discovered his empty squad car and had no idea where to begin looking for their brother officer.

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