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May 21, 2021

Vulnerability and Great Teaching

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  

In my second year of teaching, I was presenting to my speech class about how to do successful interviews. I shared my most difficult interview to date with four 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 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’s my favorite uncle. I just saw him last Saturday.”  


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.   

It was important to me to be 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. I stretched my comfort zone by opening up my own heart, and by doing so, I was creating a permissive 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 style and content area –  English – taps 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 real experiences to the table; you must have space for students to be vulnerable. For my students to write and read and react authentically in my English class, I needed to be authentic in facilitating, reinforcing, and advocating. 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 view the world through a critical lens. Students write best when they write on their choice of topic, or about something they understand. 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 we chose to be a classroom honoring authenticity, 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 courage.  

You are likely already practicing authenticity and vulnerability with your students, but here are some ideas:  

  • 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’s obvious the best won’t happen)  
  • Remind yourself teaching is naturally a very personal profession, and human connections will always strengthen the learning  

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


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