Self-Emptying Storytelling

By Michael Joseph Brennan

Educators foster learning for students who are co-creators of the future through story-telling and deep listening.

I have to admit, I like being seen and heard. I find it difficult to shrink so that other people can flourish. I have a big personality and an important title. As the Dean of Students, I have power to edify or ignore students, teachers, and other faculty. It would be easy to ride a power trip and I have met many people in disciplinary roles that do exactly that. It is also easy to be dismissive because teenagers usually find ways to get into similar kinds of situations whether they get in trouble, break-up, or get a bad grade. My daily prayer is that my own words and actions are reduced, and anything that I say that is good or loving or wise will be amplified.

In my school, I supervise the school counselor and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinators, so I find myself having to step-in to listen to stories from a counseling perspective rather than a disciplinary perspective, and many situations require empathetic redirection or conflict transformation.

Teenagers respond to me differently than they do to other adults. Sometimes this is because I’m weird and say weird things that they find funny, which is disarming—but more than that, it is intentional. Deans cannot be trained for every situation or every aspect of the job, and I was an English teacher, so my training mostly comes from books. It is really easy to admit that I make mistakes because I can say with confidence that I have no idea what I am doing quite a bit of the time. This is funny because it just seems self-deprecating.

But through it all I found that my belief in an uncontrolling God has deeply affected my own uncontrolling discipline. Some people believe they are coerced by God (or fate or the universe), and then they become controlling and coercive themselves. The fatalists often respond to situations in black and white and right or wrong. But there is another way. A way that allows for a plethora of possible responses and requires wisdom to respond lovingly with physical, mental, and spiritual well-being and safety at the forefront. A way of uncontrolling love.

I remind myself to allow for awkward pauses. I shrink. I try not to give hints that I agree or disagree so that they do not feel the need to tailor the story for me in fear that I might judge or dismiss too early. I just try to get them to tell the story—usually for more than five minutes. After that, I ask a bunch of questions, but mostly I try to empathize. Sometimes I even say weird things, like today, as I write this essay, a girl walked by when I was talking to two other girls, and she said she was sick this week. I asked why she was at school if she was sick. She responded, “you know how you sometimes vomit during that time of the month?”…and of course I said “yes!” Even if this is only theoretical knowledge because I teach Women’s Literature and not experiential knowledge. Basically, staying weird is my personal secret to offering uncontrolling love.

Uncontrolling love also pushes me to ask: What if students were treated with dignity? What if they have something to offer the world now rather than after college? Maybe we would not feel the compulsory need to push college on young people. Maybe they would not rebel if we were transparent about the decisions we make.

They say it is a dangerous thing to let people with underdeveloped frontal-lobes become co-creators in the world. But Paul says, “but God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So, while we were still messing up, Jesus invited us to follow Him. Perhaps we can do the same for youth in our uncontrolling love.

I have seen other male disciplinarians dismiss female conflicts as “girl drama” and then sometimes those situations have resulted in one of the students talking to the counselor about suicidal ideation. That is not uncontrolling love.

How many LGBTQ+ students feel safe at their schools and how many feel safe enough to “come out” to their Dean? Students of color also tend to fear their Deans because they are often disciplined at a higher rate than white students. This is not uncontrolling love either.

If disciplinarians do not zoom out in these situations to see that different people need to be cared for differently, they can miss opportunities to build relationships. And we should be asking whether the rules are more important than the students because the students often feel like the rules matter more, especially if we don’t take the time to explain our reasoning.

Here is a recent example of how I brought uncontrolling love into the hallways of school. Four students were given detentions because they took their plates out of the dining hall and allegedly threw the plates in the bathroom trash according to the housekeeping staff. When confronted, the seniors explained to the Assistant Dean they gave their plates to a girl going back to the cafeteria because they were going to be late for class. Initially, they talked themselves out of the detention and were told there would be no consequences. However, when I weighed in I pushed the fact that they are seniors and should know better.

Angrily, they asked for a meeting (not knowing that I was the one that changed the detention). I explained to the students that if they had better time management as seniors, they would not have given their plates to a girl who would then throw them in the trash. They agreed that one detention should be served. However, what about the other? I agreed and said, “you already have the one and I’m too lazy to take it away, but we’ll play rock, scissors, paper and if I beat both of you, you serve it, and if either of you win, they don’t.” Of course, the students didn’t like it, but it was funny and therefore it seemed fair enough. They won.

The point is, this was a disciplinary meeting that resulted in all-around better relationships with every adult and student involved and this is how we invite people to change. We stay weird, humble, funny, open, and uncontrolling.

If I had told them “Because I say so,” they could have easily lost respect for me. In this case, they understood the importance of managing time, talking to people for understanding, the importance of cleaning up after themselves, and likely other important lessons that are more difficult to measure.

We can hardly control ourselves all the time, so I argue it is time to let go of the reins of control for others. It is time to stop trying to control outcomes. People will change because they are invited to participate in the outcome. Trust is risky and people are messy, but God alone draws us closer to reciprocating relationships and stewardship. I know that for myself, I do not need anyone to criticize me more than I already criticize myself. When I apply that to the teenagers I work with every day, I find ways to offer an uncontrolling love.

Michael Brennan is the Dean of Students at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach and an editor for The Weight Journal. He is working toward a Doctor of Ministry and Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love