Create Safety by Modeling Vulnerability

This teacher’s choice to be vulnerable with her students transformed the learning experience.
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"I’m nervous reading this memoir aloud to you because it’s really personal, and I’m afraid of what someone might say about it. But I’m going to read it anyway."

That wasn’t one of my seventh-grade students. That was me, their writing teacher.

I was making a conscious choice. My practice of nonviolent communication (NVC) had inspired me to share something I find scary to inspire courage in my students. By trusting myself in front of the class, by going forward even though I was vulnerable and afraid, I was showing that they were worthy of trust. This was how I was choosing to exercise my role as the leader in my classroom: setting the tone of productive risk-taking.

The classroom model that I had experienced as a student, and then learned as a new teacher, was based on closing or obscuring any vulnerability on the part of the teacher. “Fake it ‘til you make it.” Sure, this approach helps us gain confidence when we still doubt whether we are ready to teach. What I want us to examine is when our vulnerability is actually an asset.

In the example above, I made two key choices: to share a personal memoir that disclosed details about my family, including mental illness, and to tell the class how nervous I was to share it with them.

After my introduction, I sensed a stillness in the room. Every face was trained on mine. There were no giggles, there was no whispering, just a focused silence as I read my piece. Then students dove in to writing their own narratives. They wrote what was real: growing up fatherless after a parent’s suicide, being teased for being overweight, deciding between friendship and schoolwork. They treated each other’s topics with the same care and tenderness they had shown mine.

My choice to take that leap, to inhabit a high level of vulnerability and authenticity in my classroom, shifted the entire atmosphere of the room and the learning experience of my students in just a few seconds. It had clearly become an open, emotionally safe space.

That example might seem unique to a writing teacher, but any educator can relate to some of my most profound moments of vulnerability. When a teacher is up in front of the class and a student says something mean or offensive, the usual response is to shut down the comment and usually the student. But when I stay committed to nonviolence, to not shutting out that student, then it becomes an opportunity: I can restore connection in the class by making transparent what the comment has triggered in me.

First, I pause. That in itself is vulnerable. It’s scary to stand up there in front of a room of seventh-graders and just be still with my feelings for a few moments, especially when students are not supposed to have the power to elicit emotions from the teacher.

The pause gives me a few seconds to get underneath my initial reaction of anger. I tell the class what I'm doing. I might say, "When I heard you say that just now, I had to stop for a moment. It upset me because I really care about everyone in this room feeling comfortable to learn here, and I was afraid that might not be happening.”

The students are usually taken aback: A teacher is telling them she’s afraid! Isn't she just supposed to punish the student who made the comment? But rather than the moment causing a disconnection where most of the students hold their breath waiting to see how one student will be punished, they see how much I care about them, including the student who made the comment. It’s transformative. How many times in a school day do students hear how much their teachers care about them?

I'm imagining you might be wondering what happens next. I'll talk more about that in my next piece about discipline. In the meantime, I invite you to ponder this: How do your feelings show up in your classroom, and what choices do you have?

Editor’s note: Personal anecdotes—respectfully and thoughtfully shared by teachers—have great power. Stories should be chosen carefully, kept brief and told at a level that invites appropriate student sharing. Read about this and other classroom culture recommendations in Critical Practices for Anti-bias Education.

Blaine is a public school teacher and dialogue facilitator and is currently studying nonviolent communication and social change.

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