Vulnerability in Teaching & Leading

Stepping off the pedestal

I think teachers and leaders have trouble with vulnerability. Traditionally, these roles are supposed to have all the answers. However, embracing humility and vulnerability is probably more honest and even more productive in both teaching and leading. A vulnerable stance invites critique and sharing of ideas and this can only improve learning and decision-making. 

I know taking a vulnerable stance is something with which I struggle. Admitting that I don’t know something or that someone else’s idea might be better than mine is unnatural for me. I think it’s unnatural for most of us. However, when I try to take a more vulnerable stance, I am usually left in awe of my students and/or colleagues.  So, below I’ve tried to identify a few strategies I’ve used to take a more vulnerable position.

1) Ask questions rather than make statements. As a teacher/leader I think making proclamations about how things should be is easy. Asking questions leaves room for the voice of other people to enter the discussion. Rather than privileging our own perspectives, I think good teachers and leaders privilege the ideas of others.

2) Stop talking. Related to number one, if we want to reduce the emphasis on our thinking, we have to stop talking from time to time. When we create space for others, they are likely to fill it. Unfortunately, most classes and meetings are dominated by a single voice. It’s vulnerable to create space for others because other people are unpredictable, but it certainly makes things more interesting.

3) Share doubts about our own thinking. I think sometimes teachers and leaders either purposefully or inadvertently create a space where their ideas are beyond critique. Even if the leader/teacher hasn’t created this environment, a lot of our past experiences keep us from critiquing teachers/leaders. So, to encourage critique, I think the teacher/leader should model the critical stance. Perhaps after sharing an idea the teacher/leader can explicitly say, “…but I’m not sure about this approach so need you all to tell me what I’m missing.”

4) Ask for feedback. I remember when I was a first year teacher, I asked my students to do “teacher evaluations” about every 4 weeks or so. I had one student write on the form, “I wish you would stop making Mr. Kruse do these evaluations, he’s a great teacher and you should leave him alone”. She assumed the administration was making me give all the evaluations and was sticking up for me. I am still nearly brought to tears when thinking of that. Yet, I learned a lot about how my students were reacting to my teaching and I got a lot of ideas to refine my approach. I imagine leaders would find similar utility if they asked for feedback from their organization. 

Of course, I don’t always take a vulnerable stance. Like all strategies, there are contextual factors that determine when something is appropriate. However, I have a hunch that the more vulnerable we are, the better our teaching and leading will be. 

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