Vulnerability in the classroom…

When I was first introduced to the work of Brené Brown through her amazing TEDtalk and her first book The Gifts of Imperfection, I kept thinking of its application to my students. Like most teachers, the classroom is never very far away from my mind and I am always collecting ideas and artifacts to bring back to them to help them make sense of their world. However, ever since she inadvertently entered the den of defensive teachers (rightly defensive in many ways…it’s been a tough few years) by saying that teachers sometimes use shame against students, I began to think her work would be much better applied to the adults in the classroom. I hope you will stay with me long enough to explain…

Some teachers have made teaching a job, they clock in and clock out. They do their job and go home. There are days when I deeply envy these people and wish this were just a job for me. For me and many others, it is a craft, a mission, a way to learn about ourselves…and so much more. Because of this, our ability to close off and compartmentalize is limited. Some teachers have told me that this is my greatest weakness as a teacher. A sure fire way to burn out and leave the profession.

This is the first year I have wondered if those naysayers are right. This is the first year that I wonder if my soft heart and passion for creating and sustaining a quality school will lead me to feel like a broken failure in the very career that I have given my life to. If it’s not obvious to you by now, I am really struggling this year. I love my students and still get excited when I see their love of learning emerge from their circled wagons of adolescence. I have some colleagues that inspire me daily to be both a better teacher for my students and better friend to myself. I have an immense passion for my course subjects (Human Geography and Women’s Studies) and love to learn more every week even if that learning never makes its way into my lesson plans. If I spoke this list to anyone, it would seem that I am full of joy and inspiration for my work. Yet, for some reason that isn’t true.

My heart hurts daily and I have a constant stream of fatigue and anxiety that at once puts me to bed before 9pm and wakes me up in the middle of the night. I am just now starting to talk about this to others. I am just now finding the courage to tell this story despite my fears of bringing those who care about me down and hearing “I told you so” from those who have been anxiously awaiting my fall. I had to start talking about it because I was stuck. I could name the emotions but could not find the roots on my own. I needed help…this acknowledgement is the first step of being vulnerable.

Which is what brought me back to Brené Brown’s work and its implications for sustaining teachers and building more wholehearted classroom communities. I think at the core of my anxiety are feelings of shame and a fear of naming those feelings out loud. I am going to spend the next blog posts exploring this in more depth and trying to find the words and the courage to write the words in hopes that I may find my way out of this by going through it. Perhaps it will be helpful to others as well.

The Gifts of Imperfection starts with this opening:

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth than I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

I am more than a little overextended these days. Though I have stepped down from various leadership roles at my school, I have taken on more challenges outside of the classroom. I have dropped so many balls in the last year (something that only used to happen rarely) that I am feeling like I am letting people down and representing myself poorly. The line above, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough” particularly resonates with me right now. I am also struggling with making connections to some students in my classes. In some ways, my students success last year on the AP Human Geography test has made me afraid I might not be able to do it again and I am pre-embarrassed about it. I am afraid of not being enough.

And yet it is my students who model drawing deep on their courage to tap into their vulnerability at an age where it is most terrifying. My poetry slam team wrote pieces last week on a moment when they felt vulnerable. The Gay-Straight Alliance students have pestered me endlessly (in a good way) to find a time and day to meet to champion issues we face at our school. My 4th and 5th periods are doing a poetry unit on identity and place and are sharing deeply about their pain. One amazing student wrote an op-ed that was published in the Huffington Post about the Illinois Gay Marriage bill. When I just stop thinking I need to be in charge and I just shut up and listen and watch the incredible young people who live with their hearts inside out, I am reminded that I have a lot more work to do to be their equal.

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Raising My Hand

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In the national classroom that is the ed reform debates, I am that student who sits quietly at her table. Attentive and invested, I have not yet found a place for my voice in the shouting match of education policy. Big-voiced, eager hand raisers have created an atmosphere that feels more like a sporting match than a dialogue. There will be winners and losers and no one wants to be a loser (though I am not quite sure how we are keeping score).

In my 10 years in the classroom, one of the truths that has remained consistent is that not one of us is very far from our own adolescence. Like every one of my 9th grade students, we want to be loved and accepted for who we are. We want to feel heard. We want to be inspired and be inspiring to others. We want to feel like we understand “the game” and can be successful in it.

As adults, we have learned to mask our insecurities in much more creative ways and have learned how to use other people’s insecurities against them. We have learned how to use our bodies and our voices to claim spaces in conversations and to ensure the silence of others by doing so. I have been guilty doing this on more occasions that I would like to admit and likely still use them when I feel cornered or powerless. Yet, I also see how they are at work against me. I see how words/names are used to mute the voices of others. I hope I am getting better.

I have been called naïve (it’s actually one of the nicer terms used) by my teacher colleagues for believing that many people in the reform movement have the best intentions in mind. I have been called a traitor for trying to see the issue from other sides (there are so many sides). When I disagree with efforts of what has been labeled “corporate ed reform,” I am seen as an obstinate teacher afraid of the inevitable–an education luddite. All of the labels are meant to end the conversation. All of them are some form of “you just don’t understand.”

Another truth I have to keep reminding myself of is that loud does not necessarily equal majority, that claiming majority does not necessarily equal majority, and that the “majority” has consistently been wrong on some pretty big issues  (see: slavery, women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, gay rights, ___ rights).

To quote one of my least favorite presidents, Richard Nixon, I believe there is a “silent majority” of teachers who work hard to teach students to listen to multiple perspectives in order to understand before trying to be understood. Teachers who are seeking information and genuinely building our own understanding and position on the issues (just like sides, there are so many issues).

In a poorly managed classroom, the shouting students reign. But there are a lot more people sitting in silence waiting for some wait time and chance to raise their hands and enter the conversation.

I am involved in two organizations that are “calling on” these teachers and asking what they have to say. The first is Teachplus. As I end my 18 month cohort,  I am beginning to reflect on the wonderful experience of sitting in a large group of diverse teachers having respectful dialogue about the policy issues that make their way into the classroom. It is rare in Chicago to have the space to talk and listen to educators with whom I disagree. (Most education events gather the converted. Proselytizing is so much more rewarding when people already believe.) Even when I hold on to my position, I am better because of the conversation. But, more often than not, my position shifts, if only slightly, to accommodate the new perspective I’ve gained. The complexity of the issue demands it.

The other organization is the Yale National Initiative. This is a teacher-led professional development model that assumes on the front end that the participating teachers are the pedagogical experts and the Yale professors are the seminar content experts. The program carefully chooses language to establish a hierarchy-free, collaborative environment and the national office charges Yale fellows in each city to do the work of creating and sustaining a local institute. It is both daunting and invigorating and the Chicago fellows with whom I work are some of the most amazing, inspiring educators I know.

We need more spaces like this in Chicago. More rooms where the education agnostics or those in constant reflection about their beliefs meet to listen and talk and listen some more.