Vulnerability in the classroom [from the archives]

This blog post was originally published in 2011.

vulnerability is not only a condition to be endured, but also to be acknowledged, cherished, and embraced” (Kelchtermans, 2005, p. 999)

No wonder teaching was called an art, the most difficult kind of art in which the final expression depends upon a delicate and dangerous balance between two people and a subject.” (Sarton, 1961, p. 213)

Hearts on a wire

I was pleasantly surprised by the response that my last work-life balance post received, both from external colleagues and Texas Wesleyan colleagues. I received great support from several of my Texas Wesleyan colleagues and strengthened my friendship with many of them, just by being genuine. Who would have thought, right?

I wanted to continue this conversation by looking at a space that is traditionally disassociated with authenticity and wholeheartedness…the classroom.

The traditional classroom paradigm is built around the notion of control. Many instructors align with the expectations of the academy, which include control over the classroom, control over students, control over content, and control over student outcomes. Even in many “learner-centered” classrooms, you will find a high degree of control over interactions and over students.

And yet, despite the control paradigm (or perhaps, because of the control paradigm…discuss), I think that many of us feel pretty vulnerable when we step into the classroom, even when we are comfortable with and knowledgeable of the topic of the course. What do we do with those feelings of vulnerability? We squash them, push them aside, or even overcompensate for them by exerting more control over our students.

It’s easy to forget sometimes that teaching is a relationship. Vulnerability is an essential part of building trust and authenticity in the teaching relationship.

Thomas Gordon (1974) articulated that effective teachers demonstrate five characteristics in their teacher-student relationships:

  • Openness or transparency (read: vulnerability)
  • Care
  • Interdependence
  • Separateness
  • Mutual needs meeting

While writing this blog post, I went back to Dr. Brene Brown’s TED video and was drawn to her take on parenting. She said that we try to perfect our children or we expect them to be perfect. But that’s not our job as parents. Brown says that we should say to our children, “You know what? You’re imperfect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

I think we have the same expectations for our students that we have for our children. We treat them as if to say, “You must be perfect and, if you’re not, you are not worthy of a college education.” What if, instead, we were open and authentic about our own academic struggles, and vulnerably showed students that failure is as much a part of learning as success? We need to show students that we endure that process as lifelong learners. “We need to share more of our own struggles with inquiry, not just the end results of what we have learned. Each time we allow our students to see that we, too, sometimes face uncertainty, or have a nagging personal experience that cannot be fitted neatly into the disciplinary wisdom, we invite our students to join in that struggle” (Nofz, 1990).

BEWARE: I am not suggesting that we give students a pass on completing high-quality work and meeting the learning outcomes for courses. I am saying we can create a learning environment in which error and failure are a natural and important part of the learning process. We are teaching students valuable life lessons when we help them use failure to learn and move toward success.

I love this quote from Dale and Frye (2009, p. 129):

“When teachers view themselves as learners, there is a sense of vulnerability that their students are able to sense; they are open and more perceptive to the subject(s) they are teaching and to students’ needs. We hope to teach our students that vulnerable and humble teachers are aware of how they personally confront difficult situations and how they make decisions, and we believe teachers are able to model this capacity for their students. Teachers who support their students as they reason through situations, ponder alternatives, see possibilities, or play them out in their imagination are teachers who develop in students an intellectual and moral capacity. This is the antithesis of those teachers controlling learners and subject matter.”

Now I don’t think that being vulnerable in the classroom means that you are a Debbie Downer every time you enter the class. If you are consistently struggling to find joy when engaging with your students, I highly recommend that you find a trusted colleague or support person (read: a counselor) who can help you reconnect with joy.

What I am encouraging you to do, pun intended, is to approach your classroom with courage, not control. The original definition of the word courage, as I learned from Dr. Brene Brown, is “from the heart.” Dr. Brown says that courage is the willingness to tell the story of who you are, to let yourself be seen. When you approach your classroom with courage, you are willing to show students that you are not perfect, but you are enough…and so are they. When you are authentic with your students, you create an environment of empathy and care.

Thanks for continuing with me on this journey. I look forward to reading your take on vulnerability in the classroom.


Dale, M. & Frye, E. M. (2009). Vulnerability and love of learning as necessities for wise teacher education. Journal of Teacher Education, 60, 123-130.

Gordon, T. (1974). TET: Teacher effectiveness training. New York: Peter H. Wyden.

Kelchtermans, g. (2005). Teachers’ emotions in educational reforms: Self-understanding, vulnerable commitment and micropolitical literacy. Teaching and Teacher Education, 21, 995-1006.

Nofz, M. (1990). The classroom and the “real world” — are they worlds apart?Teaching Forum, 12 (pp. 1-3). Undergraduate Teaching Improvement Council, University of Wisconsin System.

Sarton, M. (1961). The small room. New York: W. W. Norton.

Image from FlickrCC user FL4Y, used under permissions of the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

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