Acknowledging our vulnerability as teachers by addressing difficulties in class openly is a powerful strategy for connection and learning.
“Vulnerability is the willingness to say ‘I love you’ first. The willingness to do something where there are no guarantees. The willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.” —Brené Brown, TED talk “The power of vulnerability”, 2011.
Teaching unconditionally means embracing the risk that our teachings remain unheard or are rejected.
Teaching unconditionally is only possible when we embrace our own vulnerability. That’s because Unconditional Teaching is a willingness to establish communication between persons and to put trust in the processes of learning between these persons, while letting go of the expectation of particular outcomes. It’s the willingness to invest in students without expecting anything in return to be worth it.
Teaching unconditionally means accepting uncertainty in process and embracing the risk that our teachings remain unheard or are rejected. It means seeing breakdowns in classroom communication as opportunities to reflect and communicate more – instead of regulating more. It means engaging with students with all our presence and awareness and integrity, no matter what, because that is the right thing to do.
Its opposite, conditional teaching, is an attempt to avoid vulnerability by taking control, dictating methods, policing outcomes. Conditional teaching says to students “You are only worth my time and effort, my attention and energy, on these conditions – and if you don’t fulfil them, I’ll drop you.”
Conditional teaching is a show of power, it is a fear-based performance of authority and privilege, it is a raising of guards for the self and of barriers for others. The underlying premise of conditional teaching is that vulnerability is weakness and that a person of authority cannot afford to appear weak. It is a denial of human connection.
The beautiful thing about showing vulnerability is that it strengthens relationships.
Unconditional Teaching, rejecting these assumptions, sees the strength in vulnerability, the courage it takes to be open to connection, honest with others, true to one’s self. The beautiful thing about showing vulnerability is that it strengthens relationships: In the acts that make us vulnerable, that take courage, we show something of ourselves – and human beings appreciate that, always.
This is not about laying open your soul or your anxieties, it is not about confession or admission. To me, it is an existential honesty, the acknowledgment of our shared struggle for place and identity, the acknowledgment that, as human beings, we are never ‘done’, never ‘grown up’, never complete, that we must make and remake our place in the world again and again without guarantees. It is the willingness to look that fact in the eye unguarded and to let others see you in that state of unguardedness.
In that sense, vulnerability is also a prerequisite for doing empathy: To be empathic you need to make yourself vulnerable to the inner world of others, you have to accept that there is pain in human experience and be willing to ‘take it’, to hold it, to bear it.
Being vulnerable as teachers in the classroom
Showing vulnerability in teaching is not a technique or method, it is a stance or mindset with which we step into the relationship to our students. Embracing vulnerability is at the heart of my practice of speaking to students about self-care and mental health and it is at the heart of practices of empathy and Radical Acceptance.
In addition to that, I want to give a couple of examples of situations where I felt vulnerable in my teaching and chose to embrace it with outcomes that changed the classroom dynamic in powerful ways and that changed me as a person and a teacher.
In a team-taught seminar Katharina and I had to skip a session for another commitment. We trusted our students to make the session work on their own with just a set of tasks relayed by our assisstant, because we were convinced that learning is not something that only happens when there’s a teacher in the room directing the learning process. Unfortunately, our plan didn’t work at all and many of our students – who had been so enganged and enthusiastic before – even left the session early, one by one. When we heard about it later, we were a little taken aback, but we also knew we had made a mistake – just not what it was.
Katharina and I decided to admit being at a loss in the following session; we explained what we had expected to happen and asked our students for help in figuring out what had gone wrong. We made ourselves vulnerable. The students reacted graciously but candidly, and we learned that, in a sense, we had betrayed the social contract that we ourselves had built in the first place: We had made our teaching personal, had proved our commitment and in turn inspired that of our students. It mattered that we hadn’t been there for them: Our well-intentioned trust in the students’ ability to work on their own was beside the point, it was their trust in us that we had let down.
Admitting a mistake and asking for help was a difficult step for us. But taking this step afforded us a new and special connection to our students. Our initial insecurity gave way to an appreciation of how much engaging with us meant to our students, and of the responsibilities that go along with that. To me, this was the point where I realized that Unconditional Teaching means showing up always, with all my heart.
Unconditional Teaching means showing up always, with all your heart.
In a cultural studies seminar on Cyborgs, I had dedicated a session to discussing the current boom of sex robots and their representation in documentaries – a graphic and contentious topic. Only at the end of an intellectually and emotionally intense discussion did my students express the need to also address the related topic of child-bodied sex dolls for the use of adults, a shocking phenomenon we had become aware of during the research for the session. I found this very difficult to engange with both as a scholar and as a person, and so did my students.
I acknowledged to the seminar my insecurity in dealing with the topic, that I felt overwhelmed but also wanted to honor their research interest. This set the tone for a session that left us all emotionally raw but intellectually resolved that we had a responsibility to not look away. Here, my own vulnerability and that of my students brought us closer together and from this one session I have taken so much courage and faith in personal, honest communication.
In a seminar of 80 students, I grew annoyed with the fact that almost only male students participated in classroom discussions when three quarters of students were women. In my experience, this is a self-reproducing dynamic: women speak less and less the more discourse is dominated by men. Finally, I tried to force a change by asking all men to be quiet for 10 minutes and let only women speak. Unsurprisingly, this measure failed spectacularly: no-one said anything. Because I had acted out of annoyance and without explanation, my interdiction had been an authoritarian act of conditional teaching – for the men and the women.
During the next session I addressed my mistake, explained my rationale for the intervention, and admitted to being at a loss for how to resolve the underlying issue, which I didn’t want to let continue. I asked students for their opinions and input. From this resulted a very personal and emotionally enlightened discussion about gendered classroom discourse, and everything changed after that without enforcement. What made this possible was my acknowledgment of insecurity after a failed didactic intervention, and an openness to the risk of further rejection by addressing it again afterwards. The risk was rewarded by equally honest contributions from the students.
To me, these were all examples for how acknowledging our vulnerability as teachers by addressing difficulties in class openly is a powerful strategy for connection and learning.
As a student, I have often experienced the opposite: that contentious issues or sensitive situations were avoided, hiccups and unease were brushed over, or problems were ‘solved’ by teachers with one-sided powerplays without dialogue – those are the strategies of conditional teaching that undermine honest relationships.
It also doesn’t help to ask students what ‘went wrong’ without first admitting that everything going wrong in our classrooms is on us: As teachers, we have to take all the responsibility and admit that doing this is hard, so that students then can – maybe – feel free to share the responsibility of their own accord, without conditions.
The first step is always to talk about our own position, show our vulnerability, and then to ask the students how it was for them, what they felt, what they think, with the intent to hear them and learn from them.