The Power of Vulnerability in the Classroom
When I first started teaching my incredible mentor and department chair told me I should get feedback from students by giving them a quick survey about my teaching and the course. I loved that idea. I knew my first months of teaching weren’t perfect, but who better to evaluate my teaching than my students. The end of the first quarter so I gave my students a short likert scale survey with a couple of open-ended questions so I could get more context on their multiple choice responses.
The likert scale survey consisted of questions such as:
The class environment is welcoming to all learners.
I am learning from class discussion and activities.
The teacher is a good listener.
I enjoy attending class.
Did I learn a lot from students’ responses that day! It was a brutal wake up call that my students were not engaged. They needed to move around more in class. I needed to talk less and have students collaborate more. Students didn’t think I was happy to see them and that I was too serious. I specifically remember a couple of students commenting that I dressed in black, which they took as me not having enjoying work and not being approachable.
Yikes! My students were not enjoying my class.
Little did they know how stressed I was. We all know how stressful the first year of teaching is, but within the first month of teaching there was an unexpected death in the family, I married, and I moved to a new home that was 40 miles away from where I taught. Of course these stressful events weren’t the students' fault and they certainly didn’t know what was going on in my personal life. Nonetheless, I took my students’ feedback very seriously and had to reevaluate everything (even what I wore).
So, what did I do after I cried?
I found resources to help me develop more engaging lessons.
I observed my mentor teacher.
I started greeting students as they walked into class and made small talk.
I played music in my classroom before the bell rang.
I started sharing a little more about myself.
I smiled more, joked with students, and was just myself.
Most importantly, I immediately apologized to my students, and I was honest with them. I explained that I was really stressed and that life just dumped everything on me within a very short period of time and I was just trying to keep it together and clearly wasn’t doing a very good job. This first step was essential. As I spoke honestly to my students I could start to see a gentleness in my students. Their muscles relaxed and they looked at me with such compassion. It was a moment of vulnerability for all of us. They could see the humanity in me and I could also see it in them. This moment, though so early in my career, shifted my approach to teaching completely. I knew at that moment that I didn’t have to hide behind a facade. I didn’t have to be serious for students to take me seriously. I didn’t have to hold the weight of the world alone. My students wanted me to be whole, to be myself, to share and even be vulnerable. Through their feedback they were telling me to lower my barriers and allow myself to be a part of their community. This was a powerful gift they gave me.
Fast forward to today. I am much older and hopefully a bit wiser. I’ve gone through many joyful and painful experiences, have continued to learn, mentor and teach in various capacities. And yet, I am not perfect...not even close. Occasionally, I have to relearn a lesson.
I continue to survey students even though I teach college students now. Early in the semester I give them a student survey so I can make the necessary changes to accommodate my students’ needs early on. This semester while reviewing one of the course surveys I noticed one student’s lengthy comments. I paused and immediately read the review on my teaching. The student commented that I had made them (I don’t know who this student was so I’ll be using gender neutral pronouns) uncomfortable, because I made a comment to this person that seemed like I was angry at them. The person didn’t detail what they said or what I had said, but it was clear that this student didn’t feel safe to speak in class. After reading this comment I was trying to figure out what I had said or done the past couple of months that would make a student think that I was aggressive and not a good listener. I continued to read the rest of the class’ feedback and no one else mentioned the critical incident the student described. I just didn’t know what I specifically said or done to make this one student upset, but quite frankly it didn’t matter. Even if it was just one student who didn’t feel comfortable in my class it was one student too many.
I was so disheartened by the student’s review. I noticed that I spent the weekend thinking about it. I decided that the best way to approach this was to take three mindful actions. First, I needed to cultivate self-compassion. I took a moment to allow what I was thinking and feeling to arise and name it. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths and thought about what this student experienced in my class. I felt ashamed, sad, tired, and there was even some anger. I felt these feelings as they arose, while reminding myself that it was okay to feel the feelings. There was a tender moment of self-compassion. I realized that I was also in pain, in a period of uncertainty, and just exhausted. At that moment I was not surprised that I snapped at this student. Second, I turned my compassion towards my students. They also were struggling with everyday challenges and life changing moments. We were all suffering in our own ways. I sent loving-kindness to my present and former students. “May they be safe. May they be joyful. May they be loved. May they find peace.” Finally, I shared the results of the mid-term survey with the class.
The following week at the end of class I shared with everyone the concern that the student had and explained that though I don’t know who it was or the specifics of the critical incident that I was deeply sorry. I continued to explain that though there was no excuse for my behavior during that incident I realize that sometimes my personal challenges and deep emotions can creep into my professional life, including my teaching practice. As I spoke I looked around and noticed all eyes were on me. I felt so vulnerable at that moment. I ended my apology and asked if anyone had a comment or question. The room was silent and I was feeling pretty raw.
As I got up I started to hear students say “thank you.” I wasn’t sure why they were thankful. I suppose they were thankful for the apology, but the more I reflect on that moment of vulnerability I realize that I was deeply connected to my students and they were connected to me. At that moment I was not Dr. Azevedo, I was not their professor, I was just another human having a very human experience. At that moment we were all connected by the common feelings of sadness, shame and vulnerability. They all knew what it was like to have these very human moments. I suppose at that moment without even realizing it or even intending to I was providing these novice teachers an example of the power of publicly apologizing to students, but on a deeper level it was about the power of vulnerability in the classroom.
After thirteen years I needed to learn the lesson on vulnerability once again. It is not easy to apologize and be vulnerable, especially as a teacher. As teachers we put on our teacher armor every school day in order to face the multiple challenges and decisions we have to make. Carrying this heavy armor can be exhausting, but we don’t always have to be superhuman. We can just be a vulnerable human that has the range of messy human emotions and our students will have a wonderful and honest example of what it means to be human and vulnerable.