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March 4, 2021

Ego vs. Vulnerability in the Classroom Arena

Editor’s Note: This blog is the third post by Jennifer in the Upcycling Series about heading back to the classroom after time as an instructional coach. Join us in following her journey.

In the arena of education, I’ve learned to pay attention to how I grasp and assimilate new concepts. I pride myself on the idea that I’m a natural at applying insights to my own teaching practice. And there it is… my irrepressible ego. That’s my ego infiltrating and creeping up at the beginning of my blog. Always on alert. Always convinced that “I got this.” Always self preserving with an insatiable appetite.

But the truth is self discovery and implementation of my own learning or “take aways” is never an easy transfer to the classroom arena, despite my ego’s taunting arguments. In fact, in my case, it’s often done in front of many spectators through classroom video analysis and with a group of critical friends. It’s done by critics who are also trained classroom professionals. It’s done in an arena where competition, compassion, courage, and authenticity engage in contest. An arena where egos engage in discourse without armor. An arena where collegiac discourse is a vital component to our work of getting better together. An arena where critical friends triumph over egos, and truth struggles to move us all upward.

At the beginning of the school year, I pondered how I was going to facilitate a pathway that would lead my students into an arena where they could revise and revive their work in a non-threatening, effective way. I struggled with revising my work and began to think about how I could apply my own insights into facilitating the development of my student’s work. I decided to first turn the spotlight on teamwork projects, and together we began to engage in a critical friends protocol by looking at teamwork. This was exciting and did improve the quality of student work, but I still wasn’t satisfied with the revisions my students were making. I began to dabble in critical friends within small groups and selective pairings. All the while, videotaping these sessions to analyze them with my critical friends.

But, I was still not satisfied with the results. That’s when I came up with a brilliant plan to turn the spotlight on my own development. I asked myself, “How do I get better at my work on an ongoing basis? How do I grow and improve my revision process effectively and efficiently?” One word rushed into my mind. Vulnerability. I had to figure out a way to bring raw vulnerability to the classroom arena.

In 2010, I watched Brené Brown give a Ted Talk on the Power of Vulnerability that moved me deeply. I’ve watched this talk several times, as her words struck a chord at the core of my teaching practice. I had a deep desire to improve my work and she seemed to have the key to that door. Vulnerability. It was difficult for me to lean in to the uncomfortable areas of my practice and embrace vulnerability. I wanted to have the “whole-hearted courage to be imperfect,” but I was lacking the courage I needed for the critical friends arena. I wanted to have the “compassion to be kind and to feel connected as a result of authenticity,” but I didn’t want to let my guard down. My ego always seemed to be tagging along, interrupting at every meeting, team planning, and collaboration I attended.

What did change however, was I began to pay attention to the messages my ego was sending me and I actually began to write them down. I noticed patterns and trends that occurred, and I began to notice the shame that Brené Brown had talked so much about. The message that occurred over and over was that I had to be the “perfect teacher” to feel accepted by my colleagues. I realized that each of us possess deeply ingrained insecurities that come rushing to the surface when criticized, and I certainly was no exception. I needed to learn how to separate my self worth from the constructive criticism. And it’s only recently that I’m able to begin welcoming feedback on my practice, knowing that it’s not attached to my self worth but my self-development.

I recently watched Brené Brown’s TED talk again, and it sparked some new puzzlements of practice (PoPs)

Problems of Practice diagram

Why are some students more receptive to feedback and able to apply that feedback to their work? How can I get all students to make great strides by listening to and utilizing feedback? Teacher feedback, when properly delivered, seems so non-threatening to my students, while peer feedback can be devastating even in the sweetest form. I began to think about my interactions with colleagues and suddenly realized that my little fourth grade students have already developed dutiful egos. Egos that have to protect. Egos that are attentive to criticism from their peers. Some of their egos are more vivacious, while others are almost dormant, which explains why some of my students can’t handle criticism while others welcome it.

As I close down my classroom for the year, I’m thinking about my next steps with critical friends for my class next year. Reflecting on my own learning, I want to be able to help my students learn to detach their self worth from the criticism, and attach it to self-development instead. At the beginning of the 2016/2017 school year, I’m going to try having my students write down their thoughts and reactions to criticism and look for patterns and trends. We’re going to take time to reflect on those patterns and trends and learn to combat fixed mindset statements with growth mindset statements in our classroom arena.

I want our focus to be on how we can help each other achieve our goals through love and support, focusing on how we feel when we accomplish our goals. Growth mindset, goals, and critical friends will be our weapons for helping to create a good chemical mix in our brains; triggering our reward system instead of our defense system. As I end this year, I’m excited about starting a new year with endless possible pathways for helping students improve their work. I can’t wait to see what happens with critical friends in my classroom arena next year, and I look forward to participating in critical friends with my PoP Tch team in the educational arena. I’ll be sure to check my ego at the door.


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