A publishing note: This story was originally published by New York School Talk on July 11, 2018. We thank Vivett and Whitney for allowing Sevenzo to share their writing here. It’s a reflection that we hope will help others create more caring classrooms. We hope you are as touched by their call for vulnerability as we were.
Here’s Vivett with a Call for Vulnerability
Being vulnerable: It’s not something we think about when we prepare to teach our students. There are even some schools of thought that suggest being a stone wall in front of our students and not, under any circumstances, letting them know that we, as their teachers, are tired, stressed, sad, or experiencing any other negative emotions. My experience as an educator has taught me that this thinking is flawed and can be more damaging than helpful.
The imperative to tap into our students’ social-emotional learning and create a trauma-sensitive school culture is at the forefront of pedagogical conversations. This message must be internalized and manifested by teachers. Black and Brown educators, especially, need to demonstrate for our students in real time—particularly our Black and Brown students—what being vulnerable in a safe space looks like. Modeling vulnerability is a powerful skill that is grossly underused.
In my blog this week, I chose to feature the writing of Whitney Hollins, a fellow educator in my circle of trust. Whitney subscribes to the theory of vulnerability and speaks candidly and poignantly about how demonstrating vulnerability has helped her grow, personally and professionally. I invite you to read her words and hear them with your ears and your heart. That is where vulnerability begins.
Here’s Whitney on Love, Vulnerability, and Trust
Being vulnerable is often viewed as synonymous with being weak. It is thought that when we are vulnerable, we leave ourselves open to harm and are susceptible to a host of negative consequences. Therefore, being vulnerable is in most circumstances considered a negative situation. This negative view of vulnerability however sometimes shifts; most often when it is coupled with love. Love, it is said, leaves us vulnerable and exposed, and it through this state of openness that we become closer to the object of our love, be it mother, father, child, friend or romantic partner. By being vulnerable with those close to us, we learn to trust and experience a deeper level connection with those around us. It is in this vein that I argue for both love and vulnerability in the classroom.
Crystal T. Laura (2014) writes “To teach from a place of love, then is to empower—to open your eyes and see the strengths and struggles of the three-dimensional beings in front of you, and to fearlessly put your ass on the line to help somebody meet a fuller measure of his or her own humanity” (p. 70). This quote destroys the myth of weak vulnerability.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made himself vulnerable by pushing back against the status quo. He put his ass on the line and he did so out of love and with bravery. As teachers, to put ourselves on the line for our children no doubt makes us vulnerable, but as Laura stated, we need to do this fearlessly. We can be loving, fearless and vulnerable simultaneously. We can manage a classroom without harsh, authoritarian, archaic notions of adult superiority. We can do this by using our secret weapon: vulnerability.
Laura equates love in teaching with viewing our students as “three dimensional” human beings. This is extremely important. What is also extremely important is allowing your students to see you as a three-dimensional human being as well. I am not arguing for relationships that cross the boundaries of propriety, but instead authentic, collaborative relationships where the student and teacher both view each other as humans deserving of respect and empathy. As the bureaucracy of education continues to push for highly effective “classroom culture” we as educators, must decide what that truly means to us. We are the models for our students in the classroom. We set the culture. Here I must argue, that a classroom filled with love and vulnerability is the culture we should be aiming for.
Being vulnerable requires bravery and trust. When we are vulnerable with students we are showing that not only do we respect them, but we trust them. When we show students that we trust them, we are in turn showing that we can be trusted. When I first began teaching, I did not share a lot about myself with my students. Eventually as I became more comfortable with myself, I began telling my students that my father was incarcerated. Despite being in elementary school, they were very supportive and even during tense times in the classroom with students that many others labeled as “bad” or “disrespectful,” it was never used as a weapon against me. In fact, it was through my own admission that I found out a child in my class was experiencing the same thing. Prior to my declaration, he hadn’t mentioned his father’s incarceration. However, when I trusted him, he saw that he too could trust me. Because of this, I developed a close relationship with this student and his family. Many times, when others couldn’t reach him, I was a safe space for him and I owe that to vulnerability.
As teachers prepare themselves to enter the classroom, I encourage them to rethink the term vulnerability. Instead of seeing it as a weakness, I encourage them to utilize it as a tool to express their love not only for their students, but for teaching as a profession. When the word “rapport” repeatedly pops up, I encourage them to critically think about how rapport is built and how genuine connections are formed. If we want thoughtful, caring, reflective students in our classroom, then we must model that. If we want students who know how to recover from a setback, then we must model that. If we want students who are capable of taking responsibility for their actions, then we must model that. However, all of those things require vulnerability. We must be brave and put ourselves on the line, and no doubt we will then find ourselves in good company.
Thank you Vivett and Whitney for sharing this story and encouraging us all to be more vulnerable in an effort to open lines of trust and respect. Read more reflections and stories like this one.