A Pro’s Advice to New Teachers: When You’re Honest About Yourself, You Give Students Permission to Be Honest Too.

This is a guest post by Mark Joseph, a sixth-grade math teacher at KIPP Rise Academy in Newark, where he has taught for ten years. 

I like to say that kids have the best bullshit detectors in the world. They can tell when you’re faking and they can tell when it’s real.

My usual prescription to teachers against the inevitable bullshit is — be authentic, be you. However, I think that the word authentic has lost much of its force and its usefulness, sort of like how “unique” and “interesting” don’t convey the same meaning anymore.

Instead of my normal rallying cry of “be authentic,” I now think “be vulnerable” is a more apt call to action.

Brené Brown talks about vulnerability quite compellingly in her Netflix special, The Call to Courage, which is where I first realized that vulnerability is a more powerful and a more practical suggestion than authenticity.

As Brown writes in Daring Greatly —

Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.

I tried this the other day during a home visit for a new student. I can’t lie — I was scared to be so straightforward about also being nervous to start the school year (something I might tell my wife in confidence but not something I regularly go around telling students or even colleagues). Putting yourself out there at the risk of getting judged or getting hurt or getting laughed at or being misunderstood is hard.

(Here we are a few minutes into the conversation.)

Me: “So, are you excited to start middle school?”

Her: “I’m nervous.”

Me: “Really?”

Her: “Yeah.”

Me: “Well, that’s alright. That’s actually really normal. I still get nervous too.”

Her: “You do?”

Me: “Yeah. Every year.”

Her: “But you’re a teacher.”

Me: “Yeah. Teachers still get nervous. I usually can’t sleep the night before.”

Her: “How long have you been teaching for?”

Me: “Well, how old are you?”

Her: “I’m ten. My birthday is June 19.”

Me: “So, I’ve been teaching longer than you’ve been alive. Which means I’m old. And I still get nervous. When you get nervous on the first day, think about me and I’ll think about you. We’ll be feeling the same, exact thing.”

Her: “Okay.”

Me: “Does that help at all?”

Her: “A little.”

Me: “Okay, that’s good. Well, I’ll be looking for you on the first day.”

Her: “Me too.”

(Spoiler alert — I really will be looking for her on the first day of school.)

Being vulnerable doesn’t mean hiding your fears or your faults or your fire.

For me (and maybe for you too), it means admitting that I do get nervous on the first day of school. (And usually before that. And still even after that.)

Being vulnerable means that it’s okay to be insecure and to be obsessed and to make mistakes (and to want encouragement / advice after making them) and to apologize and to laugh (sometimes at the wrong time) and to have doubts and to ask questions and to need help and to admit confusion / uncertainty and to embrace the line from Stargirl that “even as we are, we are becoming” and to be sad and to dream big and to be human while also recognizing that our kids are humans too (and that everything above 10,000% relates to them as well).

Because when we are honest about who we are, we implicitly give others (adults and kids) permission to be honest about themselves.

Within that honesty / openness significant relationships * bloom and grow and mature.

* Like Rita Pierson says in her TED Talk (Every Kid Needs a Champion), “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.”

p.s. Some potential ideas to start the school year: 10 Ways to Be All In Like Jon Snow this School Year.

What do you think?

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