Vulnerability Can Be a Strength for Educators. Let’s Embrace It.

Jul 21, 2020

Every teacher I know has had a back-to-school nightmare. We forget our lesson plans. We come unprepared, and students are depending on us. We make fools of ourselves in the very public setting of our classroom. And it’s the first day of school, so the students don’t know us yet. We haven’t yet established a connection. We’re in a room full of strangers—our new students—and we’re exposed as incompetent.

This is the traditional back-to-school nightmare, and I’ve had somewhere in the vicinity of hundreds of them (I’m the type who remembers my dreams, lucky or not). I recently caught a thread on Twitter from my edtech friends. It was all about those nightmares, which have now escalated to waking dread and feelings of vulnerability because of all of the current unknowns.

There’s so much uncertainty right now, and it’s understandable that we’re feeling it intensely. In times of great change, the thing we all crave as humans is control. To have control, or even a perception of agency, in times of complexity can change our mindset and approach. So how can we convert these feelings of dread and powerlessness into something we can use to our advantage?

It involves staying aware, assessing current conditions and understanding that we have a capacity for what we can affect. Not only do we have limits, but we can choose how we self-assess and how we perceive our own weaknesses. In short, we need to reappraise our own vulnerability by giving it a makeover.

I’ve introduced the V word because it’s the modern hero’s secret weapon. All we have to do (and ~800,000 of us are doing this already, at least on Twitter) is listen to Brené Brown, reigning guide and authority on naming vulnerability as a strength and asset. The evidence she uses to support her judgment of vulnerability has to do with re-appraisal, turning negative connotations into positive ones. What we are feeling is not wrong. We can embrace it and even use it to our advantage, gaining more authority in the process.

In other words, it’s not exactly the weakness that’s the asset, it’s our re-framing of the perception of weakness that’s necessary. We need to train ourselves to embrace and appreciate what is weak and vulnerable. We don’t need to struggle to look for it right now; that vulnerability and uncertainty is all around us.

Let’s put this in context of teaching and learning. We’re about to start the next school year, and there are many great unknowns. We feel weak in certain ways. This links to Brown’s research and expertise on guilt and shame. She distinguishes guilt as feeling badly over an action (“I feel guilty that this happened”), and shame as feeling this is attached to our identity (“I feel shame about who I am because this happened.”)

We might be feeling guilt over the experiences of the end of the 2019-2020 school year, for example, and letting those emotions carry over into how we anticipate the fall (“I didn’t do enough” or “It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to”), which can translate into anticipatory guilt over what’s coming in the fall (“I can’t do enough” or “It won’t be able to look or feel the way I want it to”). We might even be suffering some shame over what we’ve experienced and what we anticipate experiencing (“I wasn’t enough” or “I won’t be enough”), and we feel we don’t have the capacity to face what’s coming.

These feelings are both natural and toxic, because they represent our limiting beliefs that cause paralysis and fear instead of agency and action. To give vulnerability a makeover, we need to start by looking at it in the face, and reappraising what we see.

I see you. Educators, I have seen you throughout this first half of 2020. I see all that you’re doing and for all that you’re carrying right now, even bearing through the summer as these back-to-school nightmares might be looming. Many of us working in education might feel inundated by well-intentioned postings of listicles and return-to-school guides that just don’t seem to meet our real needs on a personal level. We feel the heaviness of expectation, coupled with the inevitability that things will be as messy as they need to be at each stage.

So let’s choose it. Let’s embrace the messy, with courage from the heart, with passion for what we love that brought us to teaching in the first place, and with a nurturing self-compassion that is needed right now, for ourselves and for our communities.

Here are five research-grounded practices that will help give vulnerability that active makeover, inviting it to improve our daily quality of life.

Get Grounded

It’s important to feel a quality of connected groundedness, because this allows us to be able to respond and adapt to changing conditions with a sense of resilience and rooted connection. Being grounded is not static—it means that we feel support in our core and our roots, which allows us to embrace vulnerability. We can use physical exercises to help with this. I recommend starting with this simple mindfulness exercise in grounding, centering and feeling your feet. It can be combined with any sport or movement practice that focuses on balance and stability. Feeling these qualities in our body gives us a feeling strength when we’re embodying an openness to change and vulnerability, focusing on how the body feels, so that we can emphasize looking to actively adopt a stance or posture of stability even as we acknowledge vulnerability. Use your own body as a testing ground and see how it feels to get grounded and connect as a core exercise.

Work on Stories

Ask yourself at the beginning and end of the day: What is the story I’m telling myself? Address this as an active practice. Pay attention to the stories we take in as beliefs, who and what we listen to, and what we’re telling ourselves. Try placing your cellphone farther away from arm’s reach beside your bed at night, so that the first and last thing that gets a chance to come into your consciousness comes from yourself and your own mind, and not from reading the news or receiving a text. Wake up to an idea that you want to define as your intention for the day. Repeat it to yourself. Let it come from and speak to your heart. Integrating these practices gives you the opportunity to change your quality of sleep, rest, mindset and more.

Invite Emotional Awareness and Self-Compassion

We talk about SEL—social-emotional learning—all the time in our teaching practices, yet how often do we give ourselves the chance to practice and hone emotional awareness skills in our own personal life? It can help us to get more in touch with our feelings of vulnerability, and also explore how those feelings are showing up in physical ways (maybe causing us strain in our shoulders or a feeling of tightness in the chest, for example). Writer and mindfulness practitioner Tara Brach developed a useful self-compassion guided practice called R.A.I.N., which guides a listener through an emotional awareness meditation. Try it out, following this meditation Tara Brach leads, or by listening to the recording I made this summer as I was trying out the practice for myself.

Reappraise Stress

Feeling vulnerable undoubtedly causes a rise in our stress levels. Stanford psychologist and researcher Kelly McGonigal says it’s not actual stress, but our approach to stress that’s the problem. McGonigal says, “One simple mindset reset that can help us face and find the good in the stress in our lives is to view it as an opportunity to learn and grow.”

Try to look at each challenge that causes you anxiety, value it and see what small active steps you can take to address it. Create a budget for stress and give it a certain mental allowance for what attention you give it, and focus on the things you have the power to change. Even aim to embrace your stress and worry about the future, using it as a sign that you value and find meaning in your work. Take steps to acknowledge what you value, journal about it and reach out to friends and experts for support. Remember to breathe through this anxious time. I have a sign above my computer that reads: “Blink and breathe.” It’s the little things here that can make a difference.

Keep Talking about the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

After all, it’s “all good” in this new brave new world of embracing vulnerability! You’re showing up. Recognize your strengths and take time to give yourself credit for both what you have done and what you continue to do. I see many brave educators who have rapidly and valiantly transitioned classes online in the past few months. And I see them continue to adapt. Robert Frost says “the only way out is through”—and, managing that “through” part is often the beautiful and messy part we might feel we can’t openly talk about. But we can and must talk about it.

Part of our work with vulnerability involves being open enough to share stories in these moments of courageous uncertainty, as we’re still in the middle of facing great unknowns. There’s no one right way, but there’s consciousness, care, and a feeling of connection that we can instill in this period of immense change. Vulnerability can be reframed as strength. We know it hasn’t been and it won’t be perfect. But it will continue to be real, and meaningful. And our experiences will continue to have great impact.

Let’s choose daring to be messy, with courage, from the heart. In this way, vulnerability can get the makeover it needs to actively transform our mindset—and we can improve our quality of sleep this summer, too.


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