Teaching Opinion

Be a Vulnerable Learner to Be a Better Leader

By Starr Sackstein — July 16, 2017 3 min read
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No one was better at playing school than me when I was in it.

There was a special kind of adrenaline I got when I stepped into a new classroom, as I soaked up context clues and information about the rules second by second.

Once I figured out the lay of the land, I knew it would be an exciting rush of new learning and master-manipulating, all the way to my coveted A.

Even when I moved into college, there was an anxious thrill that came from choosing a class and participating in my making my mark in it.

By the time grad school, rolled around my interest in learning had begun to change as I had started my teaching journey. I needed practical learning so that I didn’t suck in my classroom.

After teaching for 16 years and helping so many students and colleagues rethink what learning looks like, stepping back into a classroom after my own learning hiatus was intimidating. Sure, I’ve been to conferences and I’ve had professional learning opportunities directly aligned (or not) with what I was doing in the classroom, but it isn’t the same as going back to school.

As I begin to prepare for my next job, I’m moving into very uncharted waters. Since school wasn’t even on my radar before this summer, walking up to a new campus and enrolling in my first leadership class actually activated my IBS. My stomach cramped up and I felt completely out of my element.

Honestly, the idea of school turns me on completely, but actually sitting in a class with complete strangers in a content area that isn’t my area of expertise is scary. I began thinking about what my students must feel like when they are stepping into their new classes—especially mine, which was often very different from what they were used to.

Additionally, I didn’t want to monopolize the learning space, but instead really listen to my classmates and take in what I was there to learn. It doesn’t matter that I’ve been teaching for so long or that I’ve written a bunch of books, I’m there as an equal, humble in my own learning space. There are simply too many opportunities I’d miss if I walked in there thinking I knew it all.

So I arrived at class early (as I’m prone to do with all of my appointments) and tried to settle in. As my peers came in, I observed the space and quietly kept to myself. Something you may not expect about me is that I’m quite shy, almost painfully so. When I go into a situation where people know who I am and why I’m there, although I’m shy then too, the expectation is different.

It took some time before I opened up in class. Like one of my more reticent students, it took small group discussions and writing first to be able to share my ideas openly, but I still felt vulnerable. Having written my reflection by hand, I was nervous that I did it wrong and that it wouldn’t make sense to my classmates. My confidence didn’t come until we got to share our ideas.

After being in the class for several hours, the confidence I have about learning started to come back. I wasn’t feeling as nervous about sharing my ideas or about being right or wrong. I liked the anonymity of being in the class and I can’t wait to start getting into the work.

If we want to be leaders, we must model the behaviors we expect our students and colleagues to exemplify which means connecting with the vulnerability in a meaningful way. Plus, great leaders listen. They take in what they need from other smart people around them and collaborate effectively to do what’s best for their school communities.

In order to be successful at my next position, there is lots of new stuff for me to learn and apply to the future. So with that excitement I eagerly approach the new material and my future colleagues with an open heart and mind. After all, we are all in this for the same reason, to make education better for all kids and that means we all have to do our part to make that happen.

When was the last time you were truly vulnerable in a learning experience? What did you take away from that experience to better inform your own performance for kids? Please share.

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