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Vulnerability and the Art of What Makes a Great Teacher 

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what makes a great teacher?

 Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”  

 Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead 

I was teaching a speech class in my 2nd year of teaching, and we were covering job interviews. I was sharing about my most difficult interview situation ever- 4 interviews with principal members of a well known advertising firm, then a final interview being grilled by the Director of Media. I even got descriptive how the Director looked, sounded, behaved- even what he was wearing. How he sneered at me. How small I felt. How scared I was. How I sputtered and shook and responded, feeling like all was lost.  

I finished with the final punch: I got the job, and this awful, awful man - the Director of Media -  turned out to be my biggest champion once I was hired.  

“Ms. Butler?” one of my students raised her hand. “What advertising firm was that at?” 

I told her, and she looked terrified. “That guy who interviewed you -  he’s my favorite uncle. I just saw him last Saturday.” 

Well. 

Despite this extremely awkward moment, I never stopped sharing my stories with students. I told them when I screwed up, when I made a fool out of myself, and when I hid under the lunch table from my high school crush. I shared stories of my awkwardness, my near misses, and my successes.  

I’m not sorry I was this honest and vulnerable with my students. In fact, I believe it made me a better teacher. 

Brene Brown, of the popular vulnerability and shame research that is sweeping and shaping the country, would agree. By opening up my own heart and stretching my comfort zone, I was creating a space for my students to do the same. Why is this so important? In an article inspired by Brown, We Are Teachers’ Michael Kokias shares: 

“85% of the people Brené Brown interviewed could remember a shaming incident at school that was so devastating that it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners. Perhaps even more eye-opening: “Through about fifth grade, shame is literally the threat of being unlovable. It is trauma because they are dependent. Shame is a threat to survival.” 

My instruction style and the content I was charged with teaching - English - tapped into ALL THE FEELINGS.  Add the complexity of teenage emotion, and you have the makings of a minefield of shame, which I wanted to avoid at all costs. To dig in and really digest and interpret writing and readings, you gotta bring your experiences to the table; you must have space to be vulnerable. I didn’t see how students could write and read and react authentically in my English class if the person facilitating, reinforcing, and advocating for those skills didn’t give them a reason to be authentic. So I chose to be vulnerable and to show my life “warts” (with discretion). If I could be vulnerable and authentic, it gave students the freedom to do the same. 

Choosing to run my classroom with authenticity meant that it didn’t always feel like an English class, but a class on how to respond to challenges, celebrate successes, and to view the world through a critical lens. Students write best when they write what they choose what they want to write, or what they know.  Often, their favorite topic is themselves, and anything of substance requires honesty and vulnerability. It was never demanded, but it was always valued. 

High school reading lists often include literature that not only challenged reading levels, but involves mature themes. Because I chose to be authentic and vulnerable with my students, we were able to address difficult topics in class, and students often approached me outside of class to share their thoughts and/or, heartbreakingly, their struggles. 

Modeling authenticity for my students provided a foundation for confidence and finding their own way at a time when being an individual required bravery and vulnerability. I’d like to think I provided an example of how to be yourself, without striving for perfection. 

How can you be authentic and vulnerable with your students? You are probably already doing it. 

  • Share your stories, hobbies, likes and dislikes with your students (as much as you are comfortable, and using discretion) 
  • Hearken back to when you were their age- consider how your experiences can help them navigate their world 
  • Assume the best (even - especially -  when it is obvious the best won’t happen) 
  • Remind yourself of the blessing of teaching - that it is naturally a very personal profession, and human connections will always strengthen the learning 

If you want relationships, deep thinking, and authentic responses and processing, challenge yourself to tap into your courage, and be a bit more vulnerable with your students. The payoff is immeasurable. 

Side note: We in the Curriculum and Instruction team at Learners Edge are Brene Brown evangelists. To learn more about Dr. Brown, visit her website here. 

To learn more about what makes a great teacher, enroll in Learners Edge Course 855: What Great Teachers Do and explore the beliefs, behaviors, attitudes, and interactions that form the fabric of life in the best classrooms and schools. Learn the specific things that great teachers do...that others do not.

Explore Course 855

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Topics: Teaching Excellence

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