Vulnerability in the classroom: Part of the learning experience

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When I was a graduate student, I took a writing pedagogy course entitled Teaching Freshman Composition with a lean, intense professor I suspected ran on caffeine fumes.  She became my boss the semester after the course ended, when I began teaching Freshman Composition, and as an employee, I felt her severity even more.  I avoided her office whenever possible, but one afternoon I needed to drop by.  I’d caught her in the middle of three tasks, and her exasperated exhale told me she wasn’t looking forward to my being number four.  She kept her eyes on her computer screen and fingers breezing across the keyboard as I explained my presence.  When I finished, I thanked her and turned to leave. 

“Should you divulge personal information to your students?” she asked me, apropos of nothing. 

I had grown accustomed to her style of questioning, so I wasn’t fazed.  “You mean, where you live, relationship status, that sort of thing?” 

She confirmed.  “Anything personal about yourself.”  She told me she was working on an instructional book for teachers, and she had come to the chapter that dealt with developing a classroom presence and rapport with students. 

The idea to include this chapter in the first place was probably her editor’s, because from the expression on her face, I gathered the concept of developing rapport with students truly perplexed her.  I’d rarely seen my professor pause to take a breath let alone stand stymied.  Do you let The Other know something personal about you? her eyes questioned.

I took my first stab at answering by explaining how valuable I found being friendly and approachable with my own students.  She nodded quickly.  Despite what looked like an encouraging response, I reconsidered, thinking my method might betray something trenchant about my age and experience level.  I backpedaled.  “But I suppose I don’t really share anything personal about myself.”

This wasn’t true.  I related to my students as equals (perhaps, I worried, because I was in my early twenties and hence not their senior by all that many years) and would chat with them before and after class about anything—music, their weekends, my weekend, the projects they were working on in their film and theatre classes, my upcoming reading.

But my professor appeared more pleased with the response that I didn’t share personal information, which aligned more with her views on teacher–student distance, so I left it on this note.

Thinking back on this exchange now, I’m struck with gratefulness for what my professor taught me.  It was a valuable lesson about the importance of genuineness and how developing genuine connections can facilitate learning.  I’m not suggesting that I learned nothing from her with her more distant classroom approach—I can still recall some of the readings from Peter Elbow and Susan Bordo and Michel Foucault—but I also remember being afraid in her classroom and not allowing myself to be vulnerable.  I wonder now how much more my learning could’ve developed, how much more I could’ve gained from this class as it related to constructing my own learning environments, if I had felt more okay with asking questions and making recommendations even when my logical brain told me they were maybe not the exact right questions to ask or answers to give.  In that particular professor’s class, I quite vividly remember volunteering only when I knew my answers were 100 percent accurate, and I asked very few questions, which was not at all how I operated in my workshop classes.  I can’t help but wonder now if the other students in the class felt the same.  Thinking back on it, our discussions were never passionate so much as intellectual and measured.

Vulnerability, though, is so important to growth, both intellectually and personally.  Allowing oneself to be vulnerable in a classroom setting is challenging for students though, particularly in writing courses, because writing is so much a part of you on the page, so much more personal than a worksheet or multiple-choice test, and many find offering that piece of themselves up for examination and critique intimidating.   I believe students can most easily relax and embrace vulnerability when they feel the instructor will not judge them for their current writing skills or understanding of writing concepts, so this is what I strive to give my students:  my acceptance of where they are.  To ensure they understand my classroom is a safe place and that I do accept them, I am genuine with them, and I show my own vulnerability by freely admitting when I make a mistake, when I need to look something up, or when a student teaches me a new way to look at the material.  I also show appreciation for their skill set and ideas and acknowledge my own writing challenges (yes—even a writing teacher faces writing challenges!).  I find that building respectful, nurturing relationships with them and bolstering their confidence one step at a time allows them to become more capable, self-assured writers.

Eight years after my interaction with my grad school professor, I understand that my age proximity to my students’ doesn’t dictate my desire to form a human connection with them—my desire to facilitate learning through building connections does.