Research professor Dr. Brené Brown—who is famous for her talks on vulnerability and taking risks, as well as her #1 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly—says vulnerability opens us up to pain and tragedy, but also to love, joy, and connection. It is uncertain and sometimes risky, but it can lead to feelings that make life worth living.
Dr. Brown says that learning itself is inherently vulnerable, and encouraging vulnerability in the classroom is not synonymous with “coddling,” as many may think. It’s actually quite the opposite of coddling because it pushes students to open themselves up, leave their comfort zones, and learn in a more personal, intentional way. And the first step to encouraging students to be vulnerable is by being vulnerable in the classroom as a teacher.
Veteran English teacher David Rockower learned this after years of reading predictable, not-very-emotional memoir-writing assignments. In previous years, he tended to shrug off the lack of unique emotional experiences and deep connections in his students’ writing as just a result of their age. But one year, he decided to change his approach. He realized he had to show his students that he was willing to do exactly what he was asking of them. And it ended up changing the game completely.
When explaining the assignment, instead of giving students an inspirational quote from a poet or examples of memoirs from strangers, Mr. Rockower wrote a story about one of the hardest, most emotional experiences in his own life. After reading his story to the class, the questions that followed weren’t the usual, “How long does my paper need to be?” or “How many paragraphs?” Instead, some students clapped, some wanted to share their personal experiences, and one student even asked, “Can we please write now?”
The stories his students turned in later were powerful and far more emotional than any he’d received before. His takeaway from this experience was profound: “My unwillingness to share, to write from the heart, [and] to be vulnerable was ultimately holding my students back. And when I finally took the leap, they followed.”
How Can You Start Being Vulnerable in the Classroom?
Being vulnerable in the classroom (or anywhere) takes courage. Leaving your comfort zone is not easy, and there will always be students who want to mock or use things against you, but, as one teacher put it, “for every student who negatively takes advantage of our openness, there will be scores more who thrive because of it.” Vulnerability is a powerful, emotional, and, at times, uncomfortable journey, led by both self-exploration and genuine intrigue to discover often uncharted territories.
Another teacher, who strived for perfection and sought to avoid “inevitable” mockery from his students, says that being the “all-knowing, impenetrable teacher” was uninspiring and untrustworthy. After receiving some life-changing news, he altered his teaching style and allowed himself to be vulnerable in front of his students, which yielded a new type of connection with them. These days, he says, “the mark of a good teacher is having a willingness to learn alongside of their students.”
Here are just a few ways you can open up to your students and show them that you’re a lot like them in many ways:
- Share your stories, hobbies, likes, and dislikes with your students (as much as you are comfortable sharing, and, of course, using discretion).
- Admit when you’re wrong, have made a mistake, or don’t know the answer. It takes more courage—but less time—than pretending or trying to be perfect and omniscient.
- Remember when you were your students’ age and consider how your experiences can help them navigate their world.
Being vulnerable in the classroom can promote deeper thinking, strengthen your relationships with students, and prompt more authentic responses. Showing students that you’re not perfect helps them understand that it’s okay to have flaws and imperfections. Teachers across the nation, who first told us why they teach during Teacher Appreciation Week, opened up on the importance of being vulnerable in the classroom, and how they show students they’re human, too.
AJ, a high-school AP® and honors English teacher in New Mexico, said
Jenny, a first-grade teacher in Arizona, said
Chris, a high-school English teacher in New Jersey, said
Amanda, a middle-school special education teacher in Massachusetts, said
Katie, a high-school AP and honors English teacher in New Mexico, said
Sadie, a high-school science teacher in Massachusetts, said
I share some of my life experiences to build trust and to help students evaluate their own life choices and/or events. Mostly I listen to what students have to say and give them my full attention when they decide to speak. People just want to be heard.
If you’re feeling anxious or uneasy about opening yourself up more to your students, remind yourself of the blessing of teaching—it’s naturally a very personal profession, and human connections will always strengthen learning. As our once not-so-vulnerable teacher says, “vulnerability is the essential root of the thinker and learner.” And it starts by challenging yourself to be courageous.
For further reading on being vulnerable in the classroom, check out our five-part series on incorporating social and emotional learning competencies into your teaching:
Armstrong, J. (2017, May 4). Teaching students the power of vulnerability. Student Voices. Retrieved from https://mystudentvoices.com/teaching-students-the-power-of-vulnerability-531a593b11d1
Butler, D. (2018, February 12). Vulnerability and the art of what makes a great teacher. Learners Edge. Retrieved from https://www.learnersedgeinc.com/blog/vulnerability-and-what-makes-a-great-teacher
Dornsife, R. (2014, January 30). Good teaching as vulnerable teaching. Faculty Focus. Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/teaching-and-learning/good-teaching-vulnerable-teaching/
Kokias, M. (2017, August 4). 7 words that might change the way you teach. WeAreTeachers.com. Retrieved from https://www.weareteachers.com/brene-brown-daring-classrooms/
Rockower, D. (2018, June 20). How telling students my most difficult story made me a better writing teacher. Education Week. Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2018/06/20/telling-students-my-most-difficult-story-better-writing-teacher.html