A Brené Brown quote is painted on a 4’ wooden sign at the front of my room that reads:
“There is no courage without vulnerability.”
I say it multiple times in a week. Try to model it. Explicitly point it out to kids when I’m trying to model it! Then encourage them to do the same.
It’s almost to the point where I’m expecting a student to one day say, “Enough about vulnerability!!!”
But they haven’t.
And I think it’s because it’s a message that rings true: we all need encouragement to keep us going on a regular basis, but when do you need it MOST? When you’re stepping outside your comfort zone.
When you’re putting yourself out there.
Where vulnerability happens.
Last week I tweeted out how I invited seniors from our community into our ELA30 classroom, not as guests, but to be side-by-side with students. To do everything that we did. Read. Write. Discuss. It was risky on paper and so maybe I was marginally relieved that, despite my best recruiting efforts, I only had one person agree to come back to school.
What’s one extra person in a class of 30? Lol.
Oh, but the reality was much different. The first day that Herb came into my room, I wasn’t just feeling vulnerable, I was scared sh*tless. It’s one thing to have a lesson go sideways with just the kids there. They’re usually forgiving, and I’m pretty honest when something hasn’t worked. It’s another thing to have a lesson not work with another educator or administrator in the room. But I work with some supportive colleagues, and I know that they are there for feedback, not judgement, so I don’t stress when people walk in and out of my room.
But a grown-up-non-educator-adult in the classroom is a WHOLE other thing.
In the end, the experience was amazing. As Brené Brown says, “I am a traveler, not a mapmaker. I’m going down this path same as and with you.” There were days that Herb probably wished he hadn’t come on this path! But he never said so. In fact, he contributed to discussions, shared his writing, and modeled vulnerability every week, just by stepping into a packed room of teenagers.
The kids appreciated his perspective, as did I. One of my hopes was that we would learn from each other, and when I wrote Herb to thank him for his time with us, his reply affirmed that for me.
I really appreciated the invitation to participate in your ELA30 class. I am pleased to hear that my presence was a positive thing for your students. It was certainly a positive learning experience for me. I enjoyed preparing and presenting the TED talk, and would have enjoyed hearing the TED talks done by your class. I have no doubt that they were excellent. Also, my compliments to you on your creative teaching style. English class is certainly different than it was in my day.
That's not there as a humble-brag. It really is how modelling vulnerability comes home to roost. As Herb demonstrated first, we did TED-style talks on social issues (with a personal connection if they were comfortable) and positive lessons to share with their audience.
Almost without exception, they spoke from their hearts.
Handling bad news. Disease. Divorce. Alcoholism. Death of sibling. Death of parent. Teen fatherhood. Childhood trauma. Helicopter parenting. Social Media dangers. Overcoming fears. Car accident. Truck accident. School bus accident. Losing our pets. Poverty. Suicide.
Lessons learned from grandpa. Civil rights movements. Dangers of artificial intelligence. Industrial society and the future. Animal habitat loss. Hunting changes affecting families. Fishing bringing us together. How the world has gone to crap but here’s why it’s not all bad.
It really ran the gamut of experiences.
And then this.
I had expected a speech on the impact of technology. But he made a last-minute change, and when he got in front of his classmates, he instead talked about his years in foster care. How many homes he had been in. How his mom had died, and how he hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral. How he was estranged from his father aside from a single hospital visit. And how, just the day before, he had a phone call from an uncle he’s never met telling him that his dad had died. He spoke of how he didn’t know what to do, or how to feel.
He shared that with us all.
It was without exception, the most courageous thing I have ever seen a student do.
I shed a few tears right there, and struggled finding my voice and wrestling with what words to say to the class.
I thanked him.
At the end, for the umpteenth time, we spoke again of courage and vulnerability, about the things we learned from our classmates (and about our classmates) that we didn’t know, despite having been together for years and years. For my part, I acknowledged that this might have been good to do earlier in the semester, but we also wouldn’t have been ready for it. In Brené Brown’s words again, “We can’t expect people to be brave and risk failure if they’re not prepped for hard landings.”
That trust was built slowly. Using the words repeatedly was important for students to understand and take them to heart. Adults modeling them was even more important. But most important was the strength and support that they took from each other…as each student made themselves vulnerable, those who were wavering had the courage to do the same.
After this experience, I have a new Brené Brown sign to make now. It’s one that my students can probably relate to, after finding meaning in their experiences and having the vulnerability to share what they’ve learned with others:
“When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.”
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