Teaching Students the Power of Vulnerability

This week’s post was inspired by Teacher Appreciation Week.


It takes more courage and less time to admit you don’t have the answer then to pretend you do.

For most aspiring teachers, writing a Philosophy of Education is not only a requirement, but a pedagogical rite of passage.

I remember, 15 years ago, in the swarms of early May, littering my philosophy with the theories of Skinner, Maslow and Erickson and thinking (albeit foolishly) I had arrived as a teacher. I thought that because I could regurgitated theories and infuse chic educational language into my philosophy I was bound for classroom success.

But 15 years later, 3 high schools later, and thousands of students later here’s what I have learned:

Underneath all the best practices and strategies and theories and high-stakes testing and educational bureaucracy remains one critical component for successful teaching: Vulnerability.

A few years ago…

…at Back to School Night, a parent approached me, shook my hand and said, “I don’t know how you do it.”

I smiled, “Well, teaching is tough but I enjoy it.”

She shook her head, leaned in and whispered, ” No. Deal with teenagers. They’re scary. I can’t wait until mine graduates.”

When I first started teaching…

…I was afraid to show weakness in the classroom.

I thought not knowing the answer to a grammatical question or the definition of some ornate word like sophistry would trigger not only the quick death of my teaching career but a storm of teenage mockery.

So I fashioned an authoritative front–polished shoes and a tightly knotted tie.

I deflect questions I didn’t know the answers to with responses like, “I’ll answer that later.” And would either not answer the question or conduct some stealth research and pass off the answer like I knew all along to fortify my position as the all-knowing teacher.

Why?

Because teenagers, like Back to School lady said, “are scary.”

However, little did I know, the all-knowing, impenetrable  teacher was uninspiring, unreliable and further forging the many falsities that narrate the realistic fiction novel known as High School.

Fortunately, something happened.

11 years into my teaching career, I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder– Sarcoidosis, an inflammatory disorder that can, if not monitored, be fatal.

In my first few visits, the doctors told me it didn’t look good. They told me to get my affairs in order.

I was a 33 years old,  a husband, a father of 3. I was suppose to be a rock. Strong. Brave. And here I was standing feebly at the most vulnerable intersection of my life.

Enter Vulnerability

Struggling with the diagnosis, I returned to the classroom. I had to. I had to go back to what I knew, to the stability of the school day.

I think it was the sudden awareness of my own mortality that made me realize it was okay and even acceptable, to tell my students I didn’t have all the answers. That much of life and literature is and always will be a mystery. And that the mark of a good teacher is having a willingness to learn alongside of their students.

Since my diagnosis, I constantly reinforce to my students that life, like high school, comes to an end. And with the gift of time it’s our job, our responsibility, to question and think and explore and share our stories and have courage to blast beyond the limits of rudimentary theories.

One the first day of school this past September, I introduced myself to new batch of students by telling them how I once stood 30 feet away from my literary hero, Tim O’ Brien and how I lacked the simple courage to introduce myself to him. How I missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

I wanted them to know that vulnerability is the essential root of the thinker and learner.

I wanted my new students to know that– before the syllabus was handed out– they weren’t being taught by an educational cyborg. That my wounds are both fresh and real. And how the seminal teenage belief that vulnerability is a weakness is completely and utterly false.

~

With education changing at a blistering pace, technology and quantified data research now dominates best practices.

And I do believe classroom education should be pillared with research, poignant questioning and differentiated instruction.

But underneath all the pedagogical verbiage, education has and always will be powered by human connection.

An electric connection that jolts you to know vulnerability is both a strength and an essential pillar of learning.

Be well,

Jay

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