Teaching is not a popularity contest, but the truth is that students don’t learn from people they don’t trust (Pierson). The most challenging students in our classrooms come to us with the toughest exteriors, many having learned that any vulnerability leads only to emotional or physical trauma. As the beginning of a new school year looms in the coming days, teachers are once again charged with breaking down students’ protective barriers, meeting them where they are, and then building them higher than the students themselves believe it possible to go.
Educators everywhere understand that difficult concepts can be taught best by scaffolding and modeling. Classroom vulnerability can be taught and mastered in the same way! By modeling for students the struggle we go through as we tackle a new piece of writing or a new concept, we can highlight our own vulnerabilities as learners. It is through transparent teaching and learning that teachers can model their own vulnerability, gain the trust of their students, and empower them to engage in a productive struggle for learning.
Here’s three tips to get as all started on that journey:
1. Read with them. As a teacher who works with high school students, I don’t often think of myself as a reading teacher. Honestly, reading is something that comes naturally for me and it isn’t typically a struggle. This isn’t true for my students. When I truly began to understand this my teaching style changed drastically; I began to teach like a reader. As the teacher, I am likely the strongest reader in my classroom; as such shouldn’t I be modeling reading for my students by reading with them? Reading aloud with students not only models the physical process of reading, struggling through the rhythms of complex syntax or unusual diction, but it also provides a place for me to talk through what I do internally when I read, modeling my thinking about a passage, character, or setting. It provides the opportunity to show my students what good readers do.
2. Write with them. Writing instruction is another area where teachers can model their own vulnerability. For many, myself included, writing is an intensely personal pursuit and putting one’s writing on display calls for immense vulnerability, yet we ask our student to do it almost daily! Instead of assigning writing tasks, teachers can model for students by writing with them. Our students need to see us struggle with a topic, see us write, rewrite, and rewrite again! Revision is not always an end process; it is an ongoing process.
3. Celebrate with them. Learning can be challenging and when students master a difficult concept or show growth in their work we need to celebrate! Our students need to see that their vulnerability and willingness to try deserves rewards, however small. At the end of each class, my students and I share our favorite words from the day, either words we read, words we heard, or words we wrote. Every student gets a chance to share in a safe space, and we all celebrate the work we did that day. I praise them for sharing. I give high fives. I hang their work in the hallway. I give them stickers and stamps. Sometimes, I simply say, “Thank you for being here today.” At first, my students are taken aback and even embarrassed by my seemingly excessive celebrations, but soon they lead their own celebrations and I get to stand witness to their growth.
We expect engagement and vulnerability from our students, but we need to show them how to do both. By highlighting our own struggles, insecurities, and vulnerabilities we are showing our students that our classroom learning environment is a safe space where they try without failure because we are right there beside them. By celebrating their successes, however small, with them, we let them know we see them, they are vital to our classroom, and they can do this.
Toni M. Poling is an English teacher and Department Chair in Fairmont, West Virginia, and a proud member of The National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). In 2017 she was named West Virginia Teacher of the Year. She currently teaches AP English Language and Composition and AP English Literature and Composition and is a contributing writer to the West Virginia Council of Teachers of English Best Practices blog.
Pierson, Rita. “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” TED. May 2013. Lecture.
The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.