Invite Vulnerability into the Classroom

Invite Vulnerability into the Classroom

The air crackled with student chatter. Partnerships shared snippets of stories about their own lives that they were planning to write. Ideas escaped into the air as children talked out their memories.  I jumped into the pool and made a big splash! / The next day my dog and I went to the park. / My sister and I made bracelets sitting on the grass. 

Harnessing the potential energy of our oral planning, we moved off the rug to pull those ideas down on to paper. Students found their materials and settled on chairs or on the ground with a lap desk.  As I scanned the room, my eyes followed Aaron. He took a piece of writing paper and put it on a clipboard, selected a pencil from the can on the top of the bookshelf, and got comfortable under his table. Pushed back against the wall, he crossed his legs making a cave of the classroom furniture. I imagine he sought some safety, or perhaps, invisibility in our bustling classroom. 

I crouched down to get to his eye level. “Are you okay down here?” I asked. Affirmative. He shook his head up and down. 

What would my principal say if she walked in and saw him writing under the table? 

“Is there anything I can do to help?” 

A definitive nod no this time. 

I crossed my legs and joined him. We sat together, hiding in plain sight. We were both quiet. Then, I moved on to support another writer. 

This was our routine, each day, for a month. Our writing period started with a few minutes under the table together. Quietly. In his time, the words got on the page. 

Schools are filled with teachers who excel at executive function. They can organize for several students, they can prioritize what needs to be taught, they can quickly change course when met with unexpected disruptions in their schedule. Teachers juggle and keep moving forward. It’s a job requirement. 

What many teachers don’t admit outside earshot of their closest confidant, is that this is the easy part. The outward skills keep you afloat, but to really run a classroom you have to build a connection with your students. If you want to teach with impact, you’re in the deep end most of the time. Children are in the midst of their own complicated lives. This does not disappear when they arrive at school. 

There is no curriculum for how to support a child whose dog has died. We learn, on the fly, how to respond to the child who is crying because a classmate insists a “real” family has a mother and a father. 

 In earnest, there are many days when most of us want to crawl under the table.

Brene Brown’s now famous Ted Talk - The Power of Vulnerability resonated with so many who listened. Her storytelling gave words to an emotion I could not previously label - vulnerability. The feeling of being exposed to everyone watching you get it wrong. The synonyms of the word - sensitive, susceptible - sum up the feeling we all can easily channel, and many of us have worked to avoid.

These are emotions that feel uncomfortable and as such, our instinct is to move away. Our brain tells us that this interaction is unsafe, and we do what we can to close it up, and pretend our way through the discomfort. In the classroom, it's tempting to strengthen yourself with a demand, to exert control, and bury your vulnerable underbelly. To pretend that you know the right answer. You can’t sit under the table and get your writing done. Move to your seat.

When we are led by our own comfort, we miss an opportunity for closeness with our students. We dismiss their humanity when we ask them to tuck those unpleasant feelings back into place, and get on with “learning”. Instead we can choose to prioritize the emotional moment of the child in front of us, stumble along in public, and hope to somehow say something that brings a moment of comfort and connection. 

Brown continues, in her talk, and further research, to link vulnerability with courage. She reminds us that the root of courage comes, “from the Latin word cor, meaning heart - and the original definition was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” Her scholarship reframes these feelings, honoring that true relational connection is strengthened when we move towards vulnerability instead of running away. 

Being unsure about how to respond to a child did not become more comfortable across my years in the classroom, but I did have a chance to reassess these feelings. The lump in my throat became a sign that I was stepping into something that mattered to me, and to my students.  I remembered that if a child was willing to be vulnerable in front of me, then I could let them know they were not alone under the table.

Think of a moment when you have pushed through vulnerability,

and come through with a deeper connection?