The Benefits of Teaching Vulnerably

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By Cindy Schwartz, co-founder and executive director of secondary education

With all we have been going through lately in terms of the worldwide pandemic and the aftershocks, it’s no wonder that people are feeling stressed, frustrated, and disconnected. 

As teachers, we are struggling with how to feel confident about how to teach under these trying circumstances especially when we are expected to teach remotely often without the proper training. So maybe it’s the right time to consider changing some of the ways we approach teaching. 

Maybe it’s time for us to be more vulnerable.

We must be the model of vulnerability for our students to feel confident to open up and leave their comfort zones, to learn new things. We must be vulnerable. We must be courageous and share of ourselves, if we are to teach our students how to do the same.

Dr. Brene Brown, author of the New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead defines vulnerability as “the feeling we get during times of uncertainty, risk or emotional exposure.” We become scared when we share of ourselves. 

As teachers, we would probably agree that our fears of being vulnerable are grounded in two major concerns: First, will sharing our feelings with our students result in our loss of control of our classroom? And second, if we put too much emphasis on ‘sharing time’ could that result in our inability to stay focused on curriculum?  

Dr. Brown lays those fears to rest. She says that ‘vulnerability opens us up to pain and tragedy, but also to love, joy and connection.” Dr. Brown allays our fears about being vulnerable by pointing out that “learning itself is inherently vulnerable” and that for kids to learn they must “open up and leave their comfort zones.”

So maybe we need to leave our comfort zones, as well. Maybe we need to show our students that it’s ok. 

If we want to find comfort and peace in our classrooms, whether they be physical or remote, we need to be more vulnerable and take the plunge – let’s share with our students WHO we ARE.  

How can we as teachers be more vulnerable in the classroom?

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How do we help ourselves share more of ourselves so that our students feel connected to us as human beings and not just as their teachers?

A 2018 article in Edgenuity entitled, “The Importance of Being Vulnerable” shared three simple ways that teachers can become more vulnerable in the classroom. 

  1. Share your story. Open up about your hobbies, likes, and dislikes and weave the personal into your lesson plans!
  2. Admit when you are wrong or have made a mistake. None of us are perfect and I can’t tell you how responsive my students have been when I have apologized for maybe being a bit rushed one day, or distracted for a moment. Being vulnerable does not equal weakness. We must model the thoughtful, humane qualities that we hope to foster in our students. Vulnerability will enhance student classroom performance, not detract from it.
  3. And this is really important…practice empathy…put yourself in your student’s shoes and remember what it was like to be their age once upon a time.

How can we teach students to be more vulnerable?

fatigued, young, laptop

Here additional doable ‘take-a-ways’ that will help you be a little more vulnerable in your classroom so that your students will feel safe to feel vulnerable themselves. These activities can be in the physical classroom or remotely. 

  • Model and teach your students, regardless of their grade level, to say good morning to one another. 
  • Model and teach your students to ask each other, “How are you doing today?”
  • Start each day with the “First Five.” If you are teaching in a secondary school take the “first five minutes of class every day to have ‘small shares’ about how their day was yesterday, how their day has been so far, is there anything anyone wants to compliment anyone on or apologize for? If your students are journaling, ask if anyone would like to share what they have been journaling about?”
  • On the elementary school level, start each day with a ‘morning meeting.’ Have the ‘small shares’ as well.
  • Teachers should model and share how they are feeling first. 
  • Start your class with students and YOU sharing one random fact about yourselves. Open that door to connecting as human beings
  • Remotely, connect with students via chats, sticky notes, email. Respond to student’s emails as promptly as you can, but apologize if you can’t. That’s being human. They will appreciate your honesty, you will build their trust, and then they feel better about themselves if they make a mistake. 

Use humor in the classroom to increase vulnerability

children, school, laughing

Chad Donohue wrote in a 2014 article in Teaching Tolerance that, “humor can help create this safe place of learning, but safety is dependent upon trust. The kids have to trust that I use humor to increase their attentiveness, lighten their moods, build relationships and establish a positive learning environment.” Edutopia in 2015 cautioned against ever using sarcasm, cruel or inappropriate humor, off topic humor or too much humor, but certainly “a substantial body of research explains why we remember things that make us laugh. Neuroscience research reveals that humor, systematically activates the brain’s dopamine reward system and dopamine is important for both goal oriented motivation and long term memory.” 

Here’s how I have incorporated humor into my lessons…

  • When I was teaching about WWII, I would ‘become’ Sir Winston Churchill, accent and all!
  • A bonus question on an exam might be, “Where was Mrs. Schwartz’s grandmother born?”
  • YouTube videos of children explaining what democracy is. Absolutely precious.
  • Funny recordings of people explaining the topic you are teaching today. 

You get the picture. Laugh a little. Yes, it requires you to be more vulnerable. Will the students laugh with you or at you? It’s worth the risk! I’ve found that they have, time and time again, laughed with me. University of Oklahoma Communication Professor John Banas, has said, “when instructors use positive and appropriate humor, students report feeling the classroom is a more interesting and relaxed environment and they report more motivation to learn.”

We must be the model of vulnerability for our students

We must be the model of vulnerability for our students to feel confident to open up and leave their comfort zones, to learn new things. We must be vulnerable. We must be courageous and share of ourselves, if we are to teach our students how to do the same. The question is, can we do it? Can we, as Dr. Brown says, “speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” 

If you challenge yourself, as a teacher, to share of yourself, studies show that your students will respond. Behavioral issues will lessen and you will enjoy class more as well.  

Dave Burgess, author of the 2012 New York Times bestseller, Teach Like a Pirate believes,

“Much of your success as an educator has to do with your attitude towards teaching and towards kids. The rest of your success is based on your willingness to relentlessly search for what engages students in the classroom and then having the guts to do it.”

So…let’s harness our collective guts and take the risk. Let’s teach vulnerably. It’ll be worth it.

I hope that today’s podcast has provided you with some doable tips on how to help yourself become a bit more vulnerable in the classroom and perhaps in your life outside of the classroom as well. Let me know if any of these tips work for you or if you have any suggestions on what you have done to bring more vulnerability into your classroom. 

This blog post has been adapted from this week’s Attentive Teaching podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and other major podcast platforms.

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