Our students need to feel seen, heard, understood, and known in our classrooms. And it begins with us.
In his new book The Power of Teaching Vulnerably, author and David Rockower illustrates how middle and high school teachers can build engagement and foster genuine student relationships by embracing vulnerability. He guides readers through leaning into discomfort, sharing personal stories, and navigating difficult classroom conversations.
Today on the podcast David is joined by author Ellin Oliver Keene.
David was mentored by Ellin during his time as a Heinemann Fellow. It was through their collaboration and the action research project David worked on that led to the work that became The Power of Teaching Vulnerably.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Ellin: Well, David, this is an exciting podcast. I have been hoping that your ideas would be born into a book for four or five years now, three or four years anyway, and here it is in this gorgeous book that I've read over the last three days. And I'm just, as I mentioned to you before we started to record, I'm very persuaded by the arguments you make in this book, that they feel like extremely strong arguments. And I'm almost wondering, as I read it, why haven't we been talking about this for a long time? I am really interested to hear, and for your audience to hear little bit about how your work evolved from your earliest studies of engagement as a Heinemann Fellow into the vulnerability work that you have published in this gorgeous book.
David: Thank you, Ellin. I'm so excited to be here with you and it's great to chat. So just prior to the fellowship, I was actually introduced to your book and your work with engagement, what makes students move beyond compliance to things like emotional resonance? And that really struck a chord with me. And I had already been thinking about what it means to be an authentic teacher.
So pairing teacher authenticity or vulnerability and engagement seemed an idea worth exploring. As you said, we talk a lot about social and emotional learning, but drilling down to the specifics of vulnerability, hadn't really been touched on, at least in my experience. So initially my research question was in what ways does teacher vulnerability impact student engagement? But after time I wanted to examine all the impacts that teacher vulnerability might have on learning. So then, as you know, I changed my question to, In what ways does teacher vulnerability impact student learning experiences? And from there, I moved into my research question and the three different dimensions evolved from there.
Ellin: Well, I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about each of those three dimensions, because that is actually what fascinates me so much. And it's especially compelling, I think, because you identified these three dimensions independent of outside theoretical work, but really instead, they came into being because of what you observed in your kids, right. I mean, could you talk a little bit about each one of the three and why they're important, why we should be paying attention?
David: Absolutely. So the first one, probably the one that I focused on the most was personal vulnerability. And I should say before I go into all three, that there's definitely some overlap here with the three different dimensions. But personal vulnerability, I define as those stories that we share with our students that tell about a failure, a joy, a memorable moment, really about showing students who we are beyond the classroom walls. And I think too often we bring stories to the classroom, both verbal and written that are safe and polished pieces. So we bring those mentor texts say, "Hey, I've worked on this draft a hundred times and I'm ready to share it with my students".
But I think we also need to share the ones that we've struggled with. The ones that have made us feel something that have tugged on our heartstrings as we're writing them. We may be a little uncomfortable sharing just because it's going to make us emotional, but we're asking kids all the time to write from the heart.
And I don't know that we're, as teachers, always willing to share those pieces ourselves. So that's where the personal vulnerability came in. And what I found through my research is that it inspires students to take risks. It makes the classroom feel more comfortable for them, it increases student engagement and it fosters mutual respect. So that's the first dimension.
The second one is relational vulnerability. And I define that as apologizing for our mistakes that we make in the classroom. And also giving those very specific verbal compliments, which may not seem like something that requires vulnerability, but I think it does. Giving a clear, specific verbal compliment can make the giver and the receiver feel a little bit vulnerable. But when I think back on my experience as a student, there were very few, if any times, when a teacher gave a real genuine apology. We tend to hear things like, "I'm sorry, I yelled class, but I wouldn't have had to do that if you were following directions", right. That's not a real apology.
Ellin: It's a non-denial denial. It's not apology, right.
David: Exactly. And it's much more rare when a teacher says, "Hey, I raised my voice yesterday. I shouldn't have done that. I'm going to work to do better. I'm sorry". Leaving it simply like that is really powerful.
Ellin: That can actually surprise kids. They look at you.
David: They wait for something else. They wait for the but.
David: Yeah. So I think sincere compliments. Also sitting down with a student during a writing conference and saying, "This sentence you wrote right here gave me chills and took me back to my childhood winters and made me feel the joy of a distant memory". Something that specific, really again, shows them what they've done as a writer, much more than, "Hey, I really like your piece. This is great". It's too general. So getting specific really builds that relational piece. And through my research, I found that relational vulnerability helps students see that adults are fallible. It creates more equitable student teacher relationships. And it also builds community.
Ellin: A thousand years ago when I was first teaching, Don Graves, who in many ways is clearly one of the earliest driving forces at Heinemann, used to talk about children's magical thinking. How they would look at teachers writing, in particular, and it always looked so perfect to them. And when kids were asked, gosh, what do you think about your teachers writing? They would say, "Oh, well, everything they write is just magically perfect, word by word, as soon as they write it down". So there was this magical thinking that was true with younger kids, but you're making me realize that that's true for older kids too, on the personal side. And then on the relational side that almost a tenderness that we have, that we need to have. And again, why do I think of that as something that teachers of young children are particularly good at, but that we somehow lose as we get older. Have you noticed that at all?
David: Yeah, now that you say that, absolutely. I think we're okay being kind and gentle and sweet with younger students, but for some reason, middle school or high school, there's this idea that we have to be tough and put up walls and seem to be on the ball all the time. And yet we're telling students, as you said, it's okay to make mistakes, right. But are we making them and are we talking about the ones we make? So then the last dimension is dialogic vulnerability, and this is where we would invite those crucial conversations into the classroom when we can, even if they may create some tension or discomfort. And those topics may include anything from social justice issues, conversations about identity, relevant current events. Really it's just about making our schools more inclusive spaces. And I think it's important to point out here that my book really is not about, or that chapter is not about how to have these conversations necessarily.
That's been done so many times by others so well. Sara Ahmed and Being the Change, does it beautifully with elementary and middle students. Matthew Kay's book, Not Light, But Fire dives into the high school classroom.
Ellin: One of my favorites.
David: It's amazing. But my chapter, really just pointing out that feeling vulnerable during those conversations is okay and it's normal, right. But when we do have those conversations, what I've found is that it increases student engagement. Students are often less afraid to have the conversations than we are as teachers. It encourages student voice and it also strengthens the classroom community.
Ellin: I think when we're having conversations that might make someone feel uncomfortable, I mean, I always felt this as a teacher, I always had this sense that I have to know exactly what I'm going to say, and I have to have it all spelled out and predictable. And it has to be within my control because this topic verges into something controversial or around which there are political differences. But I think what your chapter made me feel is that I didn't need to have it quite so packaged and probably, therefore, inauthentic. I mean, if it was that well planned, it might veer into being actually inauthentic, which is going to destroy the beating heart of that kind of conversation.
David: It can also be prepped in a way that you've had these conversations with your colleagues before you take it to the classroom. I recommend doing that, especially with some more sensitive topics. Have those conversations with other teachers, talk about articles together, talk about what this would look like in the classroom. I think those are really important steps to take.
Ellin: Absolutely. I would love to hear a little bit more about your students. As I read through their pieces, I just think, oh my gosh, who are these kids? How did they get to the point where they are able to articulate... I mean, I'm just blown by the student samples in this book. And so I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about, perhaps where they started when you first began to share these three dimensions of vulnerability and then how you've seen them evolve.
David: Yeah. That's a great question. It was funny, even when we started with the word vulnerability, when I did interviews with them, they couldn't pronounce it.
Ellin: Unknown to them.
David: So it was like they were these funny interviews where there were lots of bloopers and outtakes with the word. But I think they thought this was just, why is David doing this? Why are we exploring something like this? And then as we moved into it and talked about what it meant, and I started sharing a bit more of my pieces with them, I think they got it. They got that this is, Hey, teachers have told us write from the heart, write about things you care about, but we still weren't a hundred percent safe in doing that. So I remember there was a critical point where I shared a story about the first time that I had seen my father show emotion when I was a teenager and how it impacted me.
And I wrote it and I read it in front of the class. And I honestly didn't know that it was going to be hard for me to read. So midpoint in the read I was taking a deep breath and I pushed through. And when I was finished, every teacher knows these moments where you could hear a pin drop and then hands go up and lots of questions come. And I think that was a real turning point because they got it. They got that this is a place where we can write and the writing is going to be real. And we're not going to overshare, right. And there were things that students would ask me about, "Hey, do you think this is something I could write about"? And sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it wasn't. But I think that was a turning point. And then from there I saw their writing become much, much more authentic.
Ellin: Yeah. I mean, the quality of the writing improved.
Ellin: So this is not an intervention designed to make your students writing better, but in fact, that's what you got. And I just think that's a absolutely fascinating outcome, because it wasn't necessarily, especially after you changed your research, it wasn't necessarily what you planned.
David: And it's in line with your research, I think about engagement, because you're moving from compliance, here complete this memoir, right, and do steps one, two, and three. Instead you're hooking them essentially with emotional resonance and then they've got that, right. They get it.
Ellin: But you did say something just in your last response that I thought about it, it actually took me back to a time very early in my teaching career. It was my second year in the classroom. My mother was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away in my second year of teaching. I was 21, so very, very young. And there's my little bit of vulnerability here in sharing that with you. I don't share it too often, but I do look back on that time when she was getting sicker and after she died, that I think perhaps I was too vulnerable with kids, that I may have overshared a bit. And in fact, certainly not intentionally, but used them as a foundation to help me feel stronger at a time when I felt terribly, terribly vulnerable. And I wonder what you're thinking is about, can teachers go too far? Can students go too far?
David: Yes. Thank you for sharing that, by the way. I appreciate it. Yes. Brene Brown talks about this, about setting clear boundaries, and I think that's equally important with teachers. Being vulnerable, first of all, comes with time and trust. So it's not something we should ever do on the first day of school or probably the first week of school. I think it evolves from knowing one another and it will look different in every classroom. What I share one year with one group may look very different the next year. And I would say if you have a story to tell that you're interested in telling to a class, I would highly recommend sharing that with a trusted colleague, read it out loud to them, have that discussion first with them before you share it in the classroom and ask your colleague, "Is this too much? Am I missing something where this may have a negative impact"?
And then also ask yourself, as you mentioned, sometimes we unintentionally I think, may want to share something for shock value or to impress. And we can be trapped in that, especially young teachers, I think, to get that feedback from the students. And I think if you ask yourself if there's any reason that you're sharing it for shock value, take it off the table. That's not something you should share.
Ellin: Right. Or for sympathy in some way too.
Ellin: And I think that was, I certainly wouldn't have known that at the time, but I think that was a part of the problem for me in doing that. Probably way too much for fifth graders at that stage in their lives.
David: But just to add on to that too, because you mentioned students, can they go too far? And I think they can. And I think it's important to talk to students about that and say "You can write whatever you want, this is your writing, but what we share with a class or what we turn in as an assignment, let's have a conversation about that". And that comes up in the writing conferences as well.
Ellin: So that you're dealing with those things that actually might put them at risk a little bit, almost. Even in a classroom as trusting as yours, there's still a risk there for kids.
David: There is.
Ellin: In being vulnerable, right?
David: Yep. And I think that's another reason that we don't dive in, in the first weeks of school. You have to know the kids, you have to know what they're going through and what they're living with. And the longer you wait and the more, you know them, the better you are able to help guide them as writers.
Ellin: Well, you certainly pick up on, I mean, a reader gets the sense of how deeply that impacted kids. That your vulnerability and others, you definitely get the sense of how much that impacted them. I visualize as I'm reading some of their responses, I visualize, you're the teacher that they come back to visit the year after and the year after and the year after and the year after, right.
David: I hope so.
Ellin: I can't imagine that you're not, because I think those are the teachers, the people who have been vulnerable with kids, the people who have been as authentic and genuine as you are with kids, those are the teachers that stick in our children's minds.
David: I think all of this, as you know, is grounded in relationships, right. That's what the kids are going to remember. How the things we talked about, how they felt when they were in our space. And I'm really fortunate to teach in a school. And I go into the book about this school, where we loop with students. So I teach grade six through eight ELA. And so I've got students for three years, some of them, and that's a gift.
Ellin: Yeah. I wonder, and I didn't send this question ahead to you, David, but as I'm listening to you, I'm wondering about the impact of this book and your work on your colleagues, both within your school and outside. I can imagine that had I read this book from a colleague, I would've been moved to do things very differently in my classroom.
David: Yeah. That's a good question. I definitely have a couple of friends and colleagues who have wanted to do things and take action because of the book. I'll give an example. One of the things that I talk about in the book is writing live in front of students. So instead of bringing those polished pieces, for example, you're getting ready for a memoir and you put that blank Google doc on the screen. And as a class, you've talked about topics that can come, that your memoirs could be about love, greed, jealousy, fear, and you ask students, "Hey, pick one of these topics. I don't know what I'm going to write about. I don't what you're going to ask me to write about, but I'm going to do 200 words as an intro right in front of you". And I was nervous doing that, right. And of course the kids picked fear.
They wanted to know something I was afraid of. So I wrote the piece and they saw me deleting, changing things. They saw me struggling, which I think is really important. So I had told this to one of my colleagues, and actually told it to everyone at a staff meeting. And one of my colleagues came to me and said, "Hey, can I come to your class and do that? I want your class to watch me do that", because he teaches social studies. So he felt like it would be forced if he did it there. So he came the next day and he did it. And we debriefed about it. So I think some people run the other way when they hear vulnerability and some people run and dive in because they want to take risks. And I think they understand the value of pushing into that discomfort or leaning into it.
Ellin: As I was reading, I did think a lot about social study science and math teachers, and how applicable I think this is beyond the literacy classroom and definitely for teachers of younger children and older children. This has a broad appeal across content areas and across grade levels, in my view. I mean, under what circumstances wouldn't we be vulnerable once we know and understand the impact? I can't think of any circumstances where I wouldn't. I thought, in particular, about special ed teachers and children who have internalized, certainly by sixth, seventh, and eighth grade negative impressions of their own capacity and aptitude... And I just found myself thinking if special educators could incorporate these dimensions of vulnerability, what a difference that might make for kids.
David: Well, you're giving lots of ideas for future writing topics, Ellin. Those are fantastic. And I think you're right. That crossed my mind, especially math, because I could hear somebody saying, "How does this apply to math"? I remember asking you that question for engagement because both of our work is grounded in literacy mostly, but I think definitely, definitely it has broad implications and you could write about that and do a whole lot of research in those other areas.
Ellin: You really could. Let me ask you just because I'm curious, and if I'm curious, I bet your listeners are curious as well. What are you thinking about writing or doing next? A book like this, well you just said it, it opens up all kinds of new possibilities. What's on your mind in terms of big projects to tackle with your kids, new research you might be taking on because, again, and I just want to reiterate, this came from classroom research, action research that you did in your classroom.
David: That's right.
Ellin: So I'm curious. What's next?
David: Right now to be totally honest, I'm just really trying to rediscover my love of teaching because last year was so impossibly hard and this year is still really difficult.
Ellin: Very difficult.
David: And there's still something missing. This year's obviously better than last for me, but because we've been through so much and continue to go through so much in the classroom, I'm focusing on building relationships with students and colleagues and I'm sure there'll be more to write about and explore, but right now my energy is solely focused on connection. Sorry, I don't have anything great to say about future writing.
Ellin: No, I think that's important because the last question that I wanted to ask or I guess an observation that I wanted to make and another thing that I had on my mind while I was reading was, how do I want to say, maybe tender again is the word state that our kids find themselves in, in some cases this year. How vulnerable necessarily without, not necessarily with identifying it that way, but certainly they are vulnerable and they are in a tender place in their young lives right now. And I mean, I just couldn't help, but think how much more powerful our teaching might be if we incorporated the dimensions of vulnerability, particularly, always but particularly for kids right now. What have you noticed with that?
David: Yeah. That's a great point and I find myself being more patient. And as you said, a little more tender and understanding with timelines, especially, right. I used to be a little less patient when things were late and now I'm understanding when they need to get it in late and it's just about communication. And I think they understand and respect that, right. They're more willing to come to me about it ahead of time now if they know they have a lot on their plate or they're feeling anxious and they're going to need an extension. So I think that you're right, now more than ever patience is needed, understanding, empathy, compassion, all of that is critical all the time, but especially now.
Ellin: Yeah. And the lack of punitive response just seems to me so important right now. I mean, external reinforcers, I've never been a fan as you well know of anything external as an incentive or as a disincentive for kids. Seems to me particularly important this year that we minimize those external reinforcement one way or another and really focus, as you said, on relationships.
David: Absolutely. And this is not just middle school where I teach. This is K to 12 and higher ed. I teach in a university town. So a lot of our parents are professors and I'm hearing from them that the students at the university are needing more understanding, more time, a little more care.
Ellin: David, I just can't tell you how excited I am to have this book in the hands of teachers around the country. I think I told you in an email that I think I'll be happy only when it's in the hands of every teacher in the country. And especially, I also love the forward written by my dear friend and colleague Katherine Bomer who writes so beautifully and understands in just a few words of how you think and how you operate in the world of kids. And so just that package of her beautiful forward and this incredibly convincing, powerful, persuasive, and dare I say, vulnerable book that you wrote is just something that is a great gift to this profession. And I'm just so grateful and so glad it's out there.
David Rockower is a classroom teacher in the State College Area School District and recipient of the 2017 National Middle School English Teacher of the Year award. A former Heinemann Fellow, David completed a two-year Action Research Project on the study of teacher vulnerability and its impact on student learning and school culture.
Follow David on Twitter @DGRock
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning.
Ellin is author of Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning (2018), is co-editor and co-author of The Teacher You Want to Be: Essays about Children, Learning, and Teaching (Heinemann, 2015), as well as many other Heinemann titles.
Ellin is a Heinemann PD provider, presenting One-Day Workshops, Webinars Series, and all forms of On-Site PD. She is most sought after for her long-term professional development residencies in partnership with Heinemann Professional Development.
Follow Ellin on Twitter @EllinKeene