Education Trends, Equity Resources, Truth for Teachers Collective | Jan 25, 2023
What’s it mean to be vulnerable with students (and when/how should teachers do it)?
By Madeline Newton Driscoll
8th Grade ELA
Let’s do a thumbs-up thumbs-down check: thumbs up if you’ve heard about or experienced how challenging this past year was for teachers, thumbs down if you haven’t.
Your thumb is upright? Yeah, same.
This past year was difficult, and to be honest, I almost didn’t make it through. I felt even more pressure, in the face of so many upheavals, to present a very specific front at work and while teaching.
It took a few months before I remembered a lesson from one of my college professors. Dr. Kelly instilled in us, through the work of Arlie Russell Hochschild, how important it is to be authentic as a teacher.
It’s so vital to bring your full self to work, and actively subvert the expectation that teachers must be performers or craft carefully-controlled personas to be successful.
But what does this look like in practice?
Well … it requires vulnerability. It requires bringing our full selves to the work we do and being courageous enough to be vulnerable with our students.
Vulnerability though brings its own challenges, and vulnerability in the classroom brings its own unique layers of difficulty.
On a recent (amazing, life-changing, unbelievably perfect) teacher group trip to Egypt I experienced, this exact subject came up.
A group of us sat around by the pool late into the night after dinner. We were debriefing the truly life-changing experiences we’d had traveling with each other, leaning on and learning from each other, and collectively healing after this past school year. We’d created a space where each of us on the trip could be vulnerable with each other, but how could we take that back into our classrooms?
How could we take this feeling of authenticity, respect, safety, and joy and pour it into our students?
How could we hold on to these feelings ourselves, and bring this sense of peace back to the adults in our various buildings?
As teachers do, we shared best practices, building off of each others’ stories and experiences to craft the following tips to successfully bring vulnerability to our teaching. Here’s what I took away from the conversation.
1. Work within institutional safety.
This is the big one. Many teachers don’t feel safe to bring their full identities or selves into the classroom, whether that’s for fear for job termination, parent push-back, or even kids taking advantage of those pieces of you that you share.
If you don’t have any institutional support for what identities and sides of yourself you want to share, then please tread carefully, developing a coalition to support you if you get push back.
And if you truly don’t feel safe to do so, continue to do what you need to do to survive in your school setting.
2. Make sure it’s something that is safe for you to share.
Often, vulnerability takes a toll. So, if you’re opening up and digging deep with your students, be sure that you’re sharing what you feel is safe for your own mental health.
Ask yourself if this is something that’s safe and developmentally appropriate for your students to learn about you as well.
3. Focus on sharing something students can relate to.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re only vulnerable in ways, or about things, that are already familiar to your students. It can mean that, but it can also mean that it’s clearly and deeply related to the lesson, a conversation you’re having, or a relevant piece of the shared zeitgeist.
In other words, you want to make sure that what you’re sharing and how you’re sharing it doesn’t “turn the students off” from their learning, or the classroom community.
4. Consider consequences if the information went public.
We live in an era of constant videography, and kids frequently share what their teachers say — with each other, with families, with community members, with other teachers.
Before sharing, pause to make sure that if everyone in your life knew this information, you would be okay.
You don’t want to make your students feel responsible for your safety and security. Rather, we want them to see the power in vulnerability, and model ways to be responsibly vulnerable.
5. Think about how your sharing can push learning forward.
Consider whether you’re going to be sharing and opening up to help your students learn something, whether that’s a standard or something beyond the range of the Common Core’s metrics.
Vulnerability is not something we should use to manipulate anyone, so make sure that what you’re sharing is rooted in the learning, not in leveraging something purely for personal gain.
For white cis-women who teach, please make sure that you’re not weaponizing vulnerability and using it to center your own experiences over those of other community members (students, staff, families, etc.), especially community members of color.
6. Don’t be afraid of the mess.
Vulnerability is messy!
Vulnerability with 20-30 kids at once might be messier. And that’s okay. You might make a mistake, or there might be some unforeseen consequence.
By modeling how to focus on the self-affirming and community-building capacity of vulnerability, you’ll be showing students a radical way of approaching work and life that can ultimately help them feel more connected to themselves and to each other.
And that might just end up helping them (continue) to create the change in our world we know they are capable of.
I stopped being a “polished professional” and started showing up in my classroom as an authentic, messy human. Here’s what happened.
Madeline Newton Driscoll
8th Grade ELA
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