Years ago, when I began my full-time teaching career in the university classroom, I was a mere 27 years old and fresh out of a PhD program. I did not look much older than many of my students, and often I was younger than several. I felt pressure to earn their respect and, although I knew quite a bit about my field of study, I was uncertain about how to teach the topic well. My solution was to keep students at arm’s length, or even further, so that they wouldn’t see my inexperience or shortcomings. Ironically, the course evaluations by students did not show my efforts were working.
At the end of my first year a more seasoned professor, known for her engaging classes and ability to connect to students, gave me some unsolicited advice. She told me I needed to open up and be more vulnerable with my students. I thought the advice was crazy. My primary goal was to keep students at a distance and maintain a façade that I knew what I was doing. It took several years, and more voices repeating similar information, for me to finally understand the truth of what she said and how important vulnerability was to my goal of teaching well.
The Meaning of Vulnerability
Merriam-Webster (n.d.) defines vulnerable as “capable of being physically or emotionally wounded” and “open to damage or attack.” Understandably, many instructors fear becoming vulnerable will lessen their credibility and leave them open to attacks from students (Huddy, 2015). Ironically, when we attempt to “protect” ourselves by protecting our vulnerabilities, we can actually bring about what we fear. Additionally, we fail to achieve our primary goal—teaching our students well. While faculty may assume the most important element in the classroom is the content, Vaughn and Baker (2004) point to a variety of evidence demonstrating that engaging students interpersonally increases student learning and increases the impact of the teaching. Yair (2008) reports personal connection and level of trust with instructors are key elements in transformational learning moments.
Being vulnerable with students requires that we let down our guard to show the shortcomings and struggles that require us to keep growing and learning, otherwise we create an ideal persona that gives students the perception that they must be perfect in order to achieve (Huddy, 2015). Carol Dweck’s (2016) work on growth mindset demonstrates that a willingness to accept failure and mistakes as part of the learning process leads people, including students, to much greater successes. Teaching our students well includes teaching them that failures are not barriers to success. When we are willing to be vulnerable, and imperfect, we help students feel safe enough to also be imperfect and thus take the risks necessary to grow in our classrooms.
Hiding Behind the Podium
College classrooms, in many ways, can set us up for impersonal and distant relationships—something not conducive to vulnerability. Large class sizes or traditional lecture formats may prohibit a give and take between students and instructor. We may hide behind podiums, or use technology that draws attention toward content and away from ourselves (Huddy, 2015). Online courses may suffer the most, as faculty can hide behind the safety of the computer without showing much, if any, of their humanity. Even an instructor using a more learner-centered approach, such as the flipped classroom, can fail to connect with students in a personal way that allows for vulnerable moments.
Making a Connection
What does vulnerability with students look like? Huddy (2015) classifies the use of humor, enthusiasm, and passion for the topic as elements of vulnerability. Sharing personal stories that teach a concept and also allow students to connect with the instructor fit into this category. It can also include saying, “I don’t know the answer to that question, but let me see if I can find out.” I recall course evaluations by students in which they listed my willingness to admit ignorance but seek out answers to their questions as a course strength. From a growth mindset perspective, statements such as, “My efforts to teach you this didn’t go as well as I wanted. Let’s try a different way,” show students your willingness to grow as an instructor. Vulnerability can include sharing a story of how we attempted something and failed, or felt scared, or even experienced pain.
Outside the classroom, activities such as sharing an informal dinner (Vaughn & Baker, 2004) can be a vehicle through which instructors create opportunities for such connections. I teach at a small university that has a tradition of professors inviting students into their homes for regular events, but even if we cannot accommodate such interactions, making time to chat with students before or after class lends us opportunities for connection.
Seeing Teachers as Human
Certainly, there are appropriate limits around what we do and do not share with students, but allowing them to see us as humans with passions, strengths, weaknesses, and resilience can help students connect with us and, subsequently, with what we are teaching. More than that, it may impact how they learn, as we create spaces for them to take risks and be imperfect learners. Beyond benefiting our course evaluation scores, we will benefit students in lifelong learning.
“Definition of Vulnerable,” Merriam-Webster. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/vulnerable.
Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Ballantine Books, 2016.
Huddy, Shannon. “Vulnerability in the Classroom: Instructor’s Ability to Build Trust Impacts the Student’s Learning Experience.” International Journal of Education Research 10, no. 2 (Fall 2015): 96–103. http://search.ebscohost.com.lcu.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=113775898&site=ehost-live&scope=site
Vaughn, Lisa M, and Raymond C Baker. 2004. “Psychological Size and Distance: Emphasising the Interpersonal Relationship as a Pathway to Optimal Teaching and Learning Conditions.” Medical Education 38 (10): 1053–60. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2929.2004.01952.x. Yair, Gad. “Can We Administer the Scholarship of Teaching? Lessons from Outstanding Professors in Higher Education.” Higher Education (00181560) 55, no. 4 (April 2008): 447–59. doi:10.1007/s10734-007-9066-4.
LynnAnne Lowrie earned her PhD in marriage and family therapy from Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX). Her research and teaching interest include topics surrounding grief, remarriage, trauma, and attachment theory. She currently teaches in the Psychology and Counseling Department of Lubbock Christian University (Lubbock, TX).