In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown defines vulnerability as, “emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty.” I have been a fan of hers for a number of years now, but her body of work has become even more relevant for so many of us since 2020 backhanded us into a brand-new reality governed by, you guessed it, uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. If you haven’t heard of her, or if you have but you’ve never dived into her research, I urge you to start with her 2011 TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability. It’s a great introduction, and I can almost guarantee it will leave you wanting more from her. At any rate, it’s very applicable to the topic I’m writing about here, and I guess I wouldn’t be much of an educator if I didn’t leave you with some optional homework.
Like many during the last 19 months, I have sunk into the habit of getting lost in a TikTok rabbit hole. Since the dawn of social media, I have been an early adopter. Over the years, I have built a presence on some platforms while turning away from others. However, now in my EARLY 40s, I found myself resisting the urge to download the app that was taking the locked-down world by storm. I thoroughly believed that it had nothing to offer me, and on top of that, I surely was too old to be dancing and lip syncing to the most recent bop to make its way into the world of pop culture.
How wrong I was.
Fast forward to October 2021 and, after over a year on the app, I have not only moved past the lurking stage of just watching others’ videos while tailoring the highly specified algorithm of my “For Your Page” to my likes and dislikes, but I have even jumped in to making my own short, goofy videos. And to be honest, it has been some of the most fun I have had online in a long time. I’ve even somehow convinced nearly 80 users to follow me @TimDawks. Of course that pales in comparison to the many, many creators with hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers, but that, as I’ve learned, is not really what TikTok is about. TikTok is the first social-media app that seems to encourage vulnerability as a form of connection. It encourages you to get out of your comfort zone, to risk connecting with others by being yourself, whatever that looks like.
In my exploration, I have come across educators much cleverer than me, creating fun, thought provoking, and engaging content both for other folks in the field, for a public that increasingly seems confused about what it is we do in schools, and even for our target audience, the students that we teach. Every time I discover a new one, I am instantly reminded that a community-of-support as we move toward the mid-21st-century includes colleagues from all over the world. We are no longer simply limited to the people who work in our building or district. I wonder how much better I could have been if I had that in the early part of my career (answer: A LOT better). Considering all of that and the fact I have yet to find an administrator creating on TikTok, I thought I would write about why I’ve jumped in with both goofy, size 14, assistant superintendent feet.
1) I am a real, live human person with a variety of thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
It’s important to note that, the further up the leadership ladder one moves, the lonelier it gets. This is no surprise. It also becomes much easier to be characterized as a “they” rather than as part of a broader community. I often hear the phrase, “Well if admin really understood …,” or, “They aren’t on the front lines doing the real work,” and whether my colleagues in school leadership will admit it or not, it cuts every time. I have encountered an expectation that folks in leadership positions should be able to take what amounts to an insult under the guise of having a “thick skin.” It’s true that to some extent we have to expect to shoulder the disappointment of others. Unfortunately, that seems to have translated to the idea that others should be able to say whatever is on their mind to us and act surprised when it is painful. To that end, I definitely use my videos to illustrate the fact that I am an actual person, someone who struggles with the very same things you might be struggling with, not a robot who makes decisions or experiences the workplace in hidden isolation. The more quickly I can do my part to erase the us-vs-them mindset the better off for all.
2) Vulnerability is OK!
I worked on a mind map earlier today in one of my many journals in order to get my creative energy flowing, a new trick I am trying out in the endless journey to not get bogged down by all of the forces that push back against using our right brains. Author and artist Austin Kleon has a great quick video about the process of mindmapping that I used as a guide. At the center of that map was the word “vulnerability.” If you look at the picture below, you will see that once again I take a lot of my inspiration from Brené Brown. I try to remind myself on a regular basis that my own vulnerability is important for others to see because it allows everyone a moment to relax and see that we cannot grow without putting our whole selves out there. If I expect folks in my school district to take a risk, I have to be willing to, as well. For me, TikTok is the ultimate risk because it highlights many of my personal vulnerabilities: how I appear to myself on camera, a sense of humor that may or may not land the way I want it to, my version of impostor syndrome, and the idea that it is OK for leaders to make fun of themselves. I do it as much to blow off some steam as I do to challenge my own personal thoughts and feelings. I think it’s OK for others to see that process.
3) Exploring by doing makes us better educators.
The act of creating TikTok videos has forced me to learn an entirely new language, and it has pushed me to explore new ways of creating and sharing media, something that comes very easy to the generations that have come after mine. At year 18 in education, it’s more important than ever that I stay on top of the changing trends in society, especially when it comes to technology, and there is no better place to do that right now than on TikTok. Our students are more creative and tech savvy than every before. We need to meet them where they are, or, even better, allow them to teach us where we SHOULD be! Here is a sample of one of those videos.
4) If you’re not laughing, you’re crying.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. If you are looking to be sad in 2021, your options are plentiful. That makes it even more important to identify the things that bring joy and really sink yourself into them when you can. I definitely struggle with this and could learn to take my own advice more often. Creating things that may contribute to a little more joy, or at least some smiles can’t hurt, and in my opinion it is one of the most important things we can do for the people that we lead. If we can learn not to take ourselves too seriously, then hopefully that sentiment spreads into classrooms where, as one superintendent colleague stated at a recent conference, the burgeoning mental-health crisis that we were promised has fully arrived. As one of my education heroes, Rita Pierson, once exclaimed in her famous TED Talk, kids don’t learn from people they don’t like. The less seriously we can take ourselves despite all of the very serious things going on around us, the better off we will all be.
Make some time for you sooner rather than later. Remember not to take yourself too seriously, and share joy where you can. Loosen up, try that new TikTok dance (just check the song lyrics first), or maybe upload that video where you make fun of your deep love for puffy vests. And remember, as Brown would say, “Vulnerability is not weakness.”
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.