Teaching and learning are significantly shaped by the events within classrooms. And what happens within a classroom is largely defined by the relationship between the teacher and the students, and the relation among students. In this context, I discuss how vulnerability within the classroom can significantly impact teaching and learning in higher education by facilitating relationship building.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines vulnerability as the quality of being vulnerable, that is, able to be easily hurt, influenced, or attacked. Most definitions of vulnerability focus on this aspect and vulnerability has often been equated to weakness. However, there are differing views on vulnerability and some see it as a humane strength.
Brene Brown, a vulnerability researcher—whose TED Talk “The power of vulnerability” is one of the most watched videos and whose book ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead’ sold a million copies—acknowledges that “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity”.
Brown says vulnerability is the path to obtain greater clarity in our purpose. I suggest that teachers, as leaders, bringing vulnerability into the classroom can significantly contribute to effective teaching and learning, and that a vulnerable and an engaged classroom gives the teachers clarity of purpose of teaching.
Building meaningful relationship with the students is ubiquitously advised for effective teaching. My supervisor Sujan Kayastha at Thames International College, Kathmandu, where I spent most of my teaching life, often mentioned that if the students like the teacher, half of the work in effective teaching-learning is done. My own experience as an administrator is that students rarely complained about the teachers they liked irrespective of the methods and content of teaching. But how meaningful relationship can be built is seldom discussed.
I strongly believe that teachers making themselves vulnerable can be a great start towards building meaningful relationship with students. A feedback that I repeatedly got from students is that they loved the personal examples I gave while teaching. I feel that opening myself up (or making myself vulnerable) to my students helped students open up to me, and that in turn allowed us to forge strong bonds in educational spaces and beyond.
I believe there is a thin line between personal and professional; my personal life affects my professional and vice-versa, and I find it difficult to box them separately. Therefore, I share thoughts about my overall life including my family, relationships, experiences and career with my students and colleagues. I am also open about my goals and ambitions. As there are very few things that I keep private, I don’t have to worry about maintaining a professional façade sans personal life.
I can be myself, with all my strengths and limitations (both personal and professional) with the students. I allow my students to see the imperfect human their teacher is but someone with years of education and work experience who is willing to share his learning. I firmly believe that this opening-up or practicing vulnerability in the classroom encourages my students to be vulnerable and to seek help in all areas of life.
But practicing vulnerability in the classroom is not easy. Trust-building among all participants of the class provides a fertile ground for vulnerability to bloom, even though it might take focused time and continued engagement. Students are also more likely to share their perspectives, experiences and thoughts in the classroom when they know they will not be judged for what they share. Also, the teacher needs to ensure that whatever is said in the classroom is not used out of context elsewhere.
When classrooms become vulnerable spaces where the participants (both teachers and students) share about their lives, at times there might be things which need to be kept confidential or not shared elsewhere. Maintaining confidentiality thus becomes a non-negotiable shared responsibility of the class.
Teachers clearly have a prominent role in building vulnerable classrooms. It is well known that students learn more from what teachers do than from what they advise students to do. Teachers should thus be the role models students can take inspiration from. Along these lines, says Brene Brown in Daring Greatly, “Who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.” In teaching and learning in higher education, I believe teachers should take the first step in making themselves vulnerable in a classroom and encourage the students to join.
LynnAnne Lowrie (2019) highlights appropriate limits around what teachers share and do not share with students; yet allowing them to see teachers as humans with passions, strengths, weaknesses, and resilience can help students connect with teachers and, subsequently, with what they teach. She also suggests that teachers opening up with students may impact their learning as teachers create spaces for them to take risks and be imperfect learners. Building vulnerable classrooms comes with many challenges yet it is worth the effort towards creating a conducive learning environment where students can both be themselves and be respected for who they are.
The author worked as a faculty and administrator at Thames International College, Kathmandu from 2010-18. He is currently pursuing a PhD in Social Work at Boston College, USA