Author and self-proclaimed “shame and vulnerability” researcher Brené Brown keeps resurfacing in my life in different ways. First, I reconnected with an old childhood friend and we had a surprisingly honest, vulnerable conversation right off the bat. After bonding over some of the different, mutually deep struggles of our twenties, my friend referred me to her TED Talk about how vulnerability is the means to meaningful human connection, something to be owned and cultivated.
Then I attended a small group meeting of teachers about the subject of “cultural competence,” education jargon for how well teachers build relationships with students from diverse cultural backgrounds. We were asked to bring resources that impact our thinking on this topic, and specifically on the topic of how we show love for our students and how well that love is received. The Brené Brown TED Talk came up again, and a co-worker of mine recommended her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong.
I just finished Daring Greatly. Here are a couple of thoughts that come to mind:
Brown frequently uses the term “scarcity culture,” referring to the myriad ways in which society tells us that we aren’t enough as we are. I immediately think of Facebook — our frenzied, frequent status updates crying out, “I am so great!!” can seem like a desperate effort to outrun the notion that, really, we’re not enough. Brown also makes the point that for women in this so-called “scarcity culture,” it’s not enough to be small and pretty, maternal, “nice,” but it’s important to make it all look easy and effortless. If you show your struggle to meet these criteria, you’re opening yourself up to society’s critical eye. How convenient it is that we have Facebook pages we can curate to make all these hard-won accomplishments look like the natural unfolding of our lives… Oy vey…
Brown makes a point of distinguishing between the ways that women and men experience shame, and the hot points of shame for women are predictable and familiar, heavily focused on body size, appearance and mothering as I alluded to before. When Brown points out that shame around mothering applies to all women, including those who aren’t mothers, I want to shout, “Amen!”
When it comes to men, Brown calls out women on the fact that we’re constantly asking men to be vulnerable and open emotionally, but when they’re really, truly vulnerable, when they really need our help, women sometimes recoil. It turns women off, even disgusts them a little bit.
She also hits on numbing behaviors, be it emotional eating or compulsive exercising or that daily 5:00 pm cocktail. Eliminating numbing behaviors fits into another Brené Brown catchphrase, “wholehearted living.” She says that numbing the pain equals numbing the joy, and that the those of us who successfully live “wholeheartedly” instead of numbing our pain are those of us who set clear boundaries and set up our lives for balance, rather than overextending ourselves and using grit or willpower or whatever you want to call it to “manage” the imbalance that comes with an overworked, spiritually underfed existence.
But back to the conversation about teaching and parenting, giving and receiving love: One of the best kernels of wisdom Brown offers is that the best way to be a good parent, or a good teacher, isn’t necessarily to know a lot about parenting or teaching, but to live wholeheartedly yourself, as an adult. Now that’s a tall order…and one that requires vulnerability.
When I think about some of the pivotal moments in which I have earned the respect of my teenage students, I see a pattern of vulnerability on my part, a willingness to open myself up to their feelings and criticisms. When Chandler told me, “You’re one of the few teachers I have who apologizes when they’ve made a mistake.” Or earlier last year, when I unwittingly pushed a student to write about some of the personal struggles she had shared with me, and then I broke down crying (privately) when she told me that my actions made her feel uncomfortable and betrayed. Contrary to conventional wisdom, I do not believe my tears were not interpreted by this student as a sign of weakness, but as sincere regret, and I think my tears made my breach of her trust a non-issue because she could see that I took her seriously.
As with parenting, there is certainly competition and blaming and shaming in teaching — right and wrong approaches, teachers who reached a “difficult” student that others didn’t, not to mention test scores. Brown’s advice to parents could also be applied to teachers: try not to criticize another person’s teaching or parenting style if it’s different from your own (if you’re a peer) — what matters is that, as teachers and parents, we address and engage with the challenges and issues our children face.