Embrace vulnerability in your classroom and watch your students blossom.
If I say to you, “School is a space where students often feel vulnerable,” how does that make you feel? Is your immediate reaction that vulnerability is a bad thing?
Maybe, if you’re thinking of the traditionally negative definition of “vulnerable.” But I want to kick that idea on its head.
Vulnerability isn’t a weakness. When you or your students choose to be vulnerable, that means you’re willing to show up and give it your all. You remain vulnerable even when there are no guarantees you’ll be 100% right 100% of the time. And remember: if you expect your students to be vulnerable, you must be willing to do the same.
I’ll even argue that vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. It's your start on the path to a positive classroom culture.
A positive classroom culture is one where all students feel valued as individuals while also knowing they’re an important part of the group. When this culture of honoring individual and group identity is established, your students are more likely to embrace the “good” kind of vulnerability. You’ll have created a safe space where students feel comfortable being authentic and taking risks in their learning.
Are you ready to embrace vulnerability and a positive classroom culture? I’ve got some tips to help you get started.
Earn your students’ trust
Building trust with your students lays the groundwork for a positive classroom culture. Trust is imperative for students to feel safe and supported enough to open up. Just remember that building this kind of vulnerability takes time.
Here are a few of my favorite tips to establish trust with your students:
Start the day with a smile and a friendly hello. A genuine warm welcome at your classroom door can reset a lousy start to the day. It permits students to come to you with a clean emotional slate.
Listen to your students without showing judgment. It takes vulnerability for your students to admit they don’t understand an assignment or a concept. They’re more likely to be honest during academic tasks if they know you won’t immediately squash incorrect answers. Sometimes, they need to think through their mistakes themselves.
Show your students that you genuinely care about their backgrounds and interests. Incorporate culturally responsive teaching practices. Take a few minutes to chat about their after-school activities. Compliment their unique style or the artwork you spy drawn on their binders. These easy actions contribute to a trusting relationship and a positive classroom culture.
Keep your promises and do what you say you'll do. Whether it's that sticker you promised for a job well done, the phone call home about their accomplishments, or a homework-free weekend—do what you say you will. It all boils down to showing integrity. Students will know they can trust you and will feel more comfortable being vulnerable if you keep your word.
Take the time to establish trust with your students. The more they trust you, the more vulnerable they'll be in your classroom. This creates a culture of encouragement, asking questions, and academic success!
Build student confidence with early success
Early success is an important factor in building student confidence, which is critical for a positive classroom culture. Too often, students come to school with the weight of prior negative experiences on their shoulders. Show them they’re all capable academics by creating the conditions for everyone to experience success.
Grow your classroom culture and help students experience early success by:
Providing low-floor, high-ceiling tasks that are accessible to all students.
Using open-ended tasks that allow for multiple problem-solving pathways and creative thinking.
Offering scaffolding and support as needed while allowing room for students to think through their mistakes.
Building students’ stamina and gradually increasing the complexity of tasks.
Give your students an early chance at success. They'll gain confidence in their abilities and become more willing to take risks and be vulnerable in their learning.
Establish classroom norms that value vulnerability
Creating classroom norms that promote vulnerability is essential for building a positive classroom and school culture. Involve your students in developing these norms and revisit them throughout the year.
Here are some of my favorite ideas for classroom norms that center vulnerability and positive classroom culture:
Value mistakes and emphasize their role in the learning process. Encouraging your students to accept their mistakes and learn from them is crucial to building thinking classrooms.
Encourage students to ask questions and talk to their peers. This exposes them to different points of view and styles of learning. When your students see others complete a task differently, they’re more likely to share their own thought process.
Establish norms that encourage your students to take on leadership roles in the classroom. By creating a space that values all voices and allows everyone to shine, your students will embrace vulnerability and start their path toward deep learning.
By establishing classroom norms around these ideas, you’re creating an environment where your students feel comfortable being vulnerable, making mistakes, and engaging in meaningful discussions.
Encourage reflection and growth
Reflection is a powerful tool for learning and growth in any classroom. When you guide your students to reflect on their successes, stumbles, and progress, you’re taking valuable steps toward developing a positive classroom culture. Classrooms where reflection is encouraged are ripe for seeing the benefit of taking chances, making mistakes, and growing through vulnerability.
You can encourage vulnerability and promote reflection by:
Asking your students to write their autobiographies about whatever subject you teach. This activity allows students to explore their formative experiences and gives you a peek into their potential strengths and biases. I always did this informally with my math students. They were shocked to hear that I was terrified of math for most of middle and high school! By sharing this vulnerable piece of my math history with them, they slowly relaxed into their vulnerability.
Encouraging students to reflect on their mistakes, efforts, and perseverance. Do this by giving them time to journal and let them decide whether or not they want to share these journals with you. It’s okay if students are only ready to be vulnerable with themselves!
Creating opportunities for students to reflect and discuss lessons as a group. You can lead the discussion to cover any topic valuable for a particular group of students. Some examples include discussing why a specific task was challenging, encouraging students to see their progress throughout a lesson or module, or centering the discussion on how they completed a single task in multiple ways.
So often, we’re tempted to keep up a pace of “go go go” to squeeze in every lesson, activity, or assessment.
But take this as your permission to pause. Take a deep breath (with your students!). Give them time to reflect on their learning and how far they’ve come.
By incorporating reflection into the learning process, you can foster a classroom and school culture of vulnerability and continuous learning.
Positive classroom culture is within reach
Giving students space to be comfortable in their vulnerability is essential to building a positive classroom and school culture. By embracing vulnerability, you help create an environment where everyone feels safe to take risks, make mistakes, and grow.
Are you ready to prioritize vulnerability in your math classroom? Check out our webinar Courageous Classrooms: Embracing Vulnerability in Math Education.
Before joining Carnegie Learning's marketing team in 2022, Karen spent 16 years teaching mathematics and social studies in Ohio classrooms. She has a passion for inclusive education and believes that all learners can be meaningfully included in academic settings from day one. As a former math and special education teacher, she is excited to provide educators with the latest in best-practices content so that they can set all students on the path to becoming confident "math people."Explore more related to this author
Vulnerability isn’t a weakness. When you or your students choose to be vulnerable, that means you’re willing to show up and give it your all.
Karen Sloan, Teacher of 16 years