How to be Vulnerable with your Students

There is this threshold. I walk my students up to it each semester. They stand on one side as they are, as they arrive. You know, good students. Highly conditioned, rule-following, hand-raising, wait-to-be-called-upon students. The kind of students our education system prides itself on producing. On the other side of the threshold is the kind of student I need them to become: initiative-taking, ownership-owning, do-it-and-see-what-happens kind of human being.

Getting my students across that threshold is a process. It takes a lot of encouragement. That’s easy to give. But that’s not enough. They need more. They need someone who’s willing to have the hard conversation with them. Someone who’s willing to tell them the truth. Namely, they need to commit, give more, do what they came here to do. Do it even though it scares them. Do it even though they may fail. Because, honestly, failing is the point. It’s the first step. Sure, it’ll hurt. But they’ll survive. And, they’ll learn that it’s not such a big deal. The world still turns, gravity still works and the buses still run.

As you can imagine, many (if not most) of my students fear this threshold. So, when I ask them to cross it, they need to believe that I have their best interests at heart. They need to trust me. And, I earn their trust by being vulnerable; that is, by sharing my stories of hardships, humiliations and heart-rending failures with them.

Now, whenever I share such a story with my students, I risk emotional exposure. Not only that. My story has been told. It is out there. And, it cannot be taken back. In other words, storytelling is a risky and irreversible act. That’s what makes it vulnerable. It’s also what makes it an incredibly effective way to signal my emotional commitment to them. By sharing such a story with my them, I’m telling them that I trust them. I trust them with my story. I’m also asking them to trust me in return.

Storytelling of this kind not only takes trust between myself and them. It also takes trust among all of them with one another. So, storytelling of this kind is best in small classes. And, since most students are not accustomed to this style of teaching, I share the following with them before they enroll:

One of my roles in the classroom is to hold a space for storytelling. Now, if you choose to join us, you get to decide which stories (if any) you want to share. Indeed, you can choose to not share at all. That’s your choice. However, whether you choose to share or not share a story, we will be in this space together and sharing stories is a vulnerable process. So, if you decide to share a story, please know that I cannot offer you any expertise. However, as one human to another, I can offer up my experiences. Yet, having said that, I want to be careful about sharing my experiences. This space is not a place for advice and answers. It is a space for sharing stories, asking questions, and sitting with them in the presence of one another. And, I cannot stress enough the mutuality of this process. I will learn as much about myself as you will. Here are the ground rules that guide our storytelling:

  • Listen deeply.
  • Ask honest and open questions of ourselves and one another.
  • Hear one another.
  • There’s no fixing, saving, advising, and no correcting of one other.
  • Gently mirror one another.

Now, when it comes to storytelling, I do not share all of my stories all of the time with whoever is around. There are some stories I only share in one-on-one settings. There are other stories I only share in small group settings. And, there are some stories that I have never told. May never tell. And, after many years of storytelling in the classroom, here are some of the things I’ve learned along the way:

1. Before sharing a story, I interrogate my motivations by asking the following:

  • Why this story?
  • Why now?
  • Why this story right now with these students?

I then review some possibilities:

  • Am I looking for a boost of confidence or a pat on the back?
  • Am I looking to be comforted, healed or affirmed?
  • Am I looking for them to solve a problem for me?

If I answer “yes” to any of these three questions, then that story is off-limits for sharing. Of course, some of the aforementioned things may arise naturally as a result of sharing a story. However, they must not (cannot) be the motivation for sharing a story.

2. Storytelling is an emotional experience that elicits a variety of physiological responses from the storyteller. To help me select which stories to share, I’ve created an Emotional Control Continuum. This continuum ranges from “Full Emotional Control” on one to end (for example, no change at all in my pulse rate while telling a story) to “No Emotional Control” on the other end (for example, full blown histrionics). And, moving along this continuum from “Full Emotional Control” to “No Emotional Control”, I’ve mapped the following physiological responses:

  • Tightening of the throat
  • Reddening of the eyes
  • Welling of tears
  • Crying.

I keep my storytelling on the “Full Emotional Control” side of things. I sometimes venture into the tightening of the throat territory. And, if I’m in a particularly feisty mood, I may tell a story that reddens my eyes. Otherwise, I only share stories that I’ve already worked through myself or with family and friends. Storytelling is about sharing my scars. Not my open wounds. Like scars, the stories I share have healed. Telling them may hurt. But they have been considered, processed and integrated into who I am. I can share them with a smile. So, before sharing a story with your students, try sharing it with someone you trust and have them place your physiological response along the Emotional Control Continuum. Maintaining storytelling equanimity is key.

3. This should go without saying but I’ll say it anyways: I do not share stories that could hurt others (other students, colleagues or community members).

4. One of the first things I learned as an educator was that if someone doesn’t look like they’re emotionally okay, don’t ask if they are okay unless you’re willing and able to give them your undivided attention as they navigate their way to an answer. The same goes for storytelling. Before sharing your story, make sure you’re emotionally willing and able to hear your students’ stories.

5. Sometimes in the process of sharing their stories a student will be in need or request additional support. If so, be prepared to find them support within the university (for example, counseling services). Stories may also be shared with you that you’re legally responsible to report to the university (for example, Title IX Reporting Responsibilities). If and when these occasions arise, let the student know of your legal obligations as soon as you can. And, after making them aware of your legal obligations, ask if they feel comfortable moving forward with the sharing of their story. I know that this all sounds a bit scary. But situations like these have only happened with me a couple of times.

So, when it comes to storytelling in the classroom, where I draw the line between sharing and oversharing and where you draw that line may be different. Well, they will be different. My line is drawn in pencil, not pen. It moves, evolves and varies with the context. For example, with students who are new to me, I keep my storytelling close to the vest. With students who know me, I share more. And, if I’m sitting in a circle around a bonfire with those very same students, I’m open to telling even more. Now, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve shared too much too soon. And, sometimes I’ve shared too little when I should have offered more of myself. I’m not sure which is the greater failure. But, in general, I shy on the side of caution. At least that’s what I think I do. Others may not see it that way. Storytelling in the classroom is an art. But, If you’re looking for a lodestar, remember that being vulnerable with your students is not an end itself. It is a means to earning their trust. And, storytelling is meant to serve your students not yourself.

“Them not me” is a mantra I constantly repeat.


You can learn more about my pedagogy by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Fabio Santaniello Bruun on Unsplash