The Important Practice of Vulnerability

Lindsey Stevens, NBCT, is a regular blogger for Puget Sound ESD’s CORElaborate blog , where this piece first appeared, and is republished here with the permission of both the Lindsey and Puget Sound ESD.


I just spent another amazing weekend at the National Board Certified Teacher Leadership Conference. This time it was at Skamania Lodge in Stevenson Washington and it was amazing and beautiful. The surroundings were wonderful but even more that the atmosphere, I always leave appreciating what I have gained from this inspiring gathering of professionals. The biggest takeaway I have form this weekend is that I need to continue to be vulnerable in my practice to really be a leader and to impact student learning.

At the conference we were greeted first by the fabulous Katie Taylor. Katie is the Director of Teacher Leadership and Learning at the Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession (CSTP). If you have not checked out or been in contact with this wonderful organization you should find out what they are all about. At any rate Katie was helping us to think about the traits and qualities of teacher leaders in her opening session. During her presentation we were asked to complete the sentence, “Teachers lead when we…” I sat and thought about that for quite a bit before I could fill it in. What do I really do that is true inspiring leadership? It’s not necessarily when I run a training, or when I plan a meeting. I realized that I truly do my best leading when I am vulnerable, when I make my practice, my trials and my tribulations transparent. This is really the only way to ask others to show me what they are doing and to be honest. I really think that vulnerability might just be the most important disposition for any teacher, especially teacher leaders to embrace.

Katie had us examine our leadership in relation to an article from Educational Leadership “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” by Cindy Harrison and Joellen Killion. In this article the authors point out the following ten roles for teacher leaders: resource provider, instructional specialist, curriculum specialist, classroom supporter, learning facilitator, mentor, school leader, data coach, catalyst for change and learner. In the activity we were identified how we were and could be any of these roles. Later I began to think about how these roles as teacher leader and my personal insight into vulnerability when hand-in-hand. Each of these roles take a certain level and different kind of vulnerability.

To be a resource provider for other people in your department, school, or wider audience, like a blog, you must be vulnerable. Every time I share an instructional resource with someone I am wondering if they will think it is useful, if they have seen something like it, or if they are thinking they have a million better things to use. I allow myself to be vulnerable and I do it anyway. Maybe people reading my blog think I am behind and using something they have been for years, but maybe there are a couple people out there, or someone down the hall who I saved time by providing something useful. Maybe I have impacted and increased student learning for students in my school or beyond by offering up something that I know works and having another teacher use it. It is very scary to be this vulnerable but I do it anyway because I am so very thankful when others share with me and save me even the smallest amount of precious time.

Instructional specialist is often a title in a school or district, but many times people fill these roles informally and that takes a lot of vulnerability. According to the article an instructional specialist helps colleagues implement effective teaching strategies. I think that often we act in this way in our professional learning communities and in other formal and informal settings. It takes a level of vulnerability to be on both sides of this interaction. To share findings about lessons and instruction with colleagues opens yourself up to them and to what is happening in your classroom. It also takes vulnerability to watch someone teach, to have someone watch you teach, and to have real and meaningful conversations about these practices.

Some of us also find ourselves acting as curriculum specialist in these same sort of informal situations. If we are leading teachers to agree on standards, or pacing, and/or helping develop shared assessments, as this role is defined in the article, we are acting as curriculum specialist. Here we also have to offer up ourselves as both advisors and advisees. We have to be a part of the team and be transparent about our process, our bias’ and our knowledge.

Classroom supporter is defined in “Ten Roles for Teacher Leaders” as someone who “works inside classrooms, often demonstrating a lesson, coteaching, or observing and giving feedback.” I think that this would take a large level of vulnerability more so in the beginning of this role. It takes a lot of willingness to be part of a transparent process to demonstrate a lesson, or to do coteaching. In this case there is a level of judgment of and by others that goes into the process and requiring us to be vulnerable and reflective in this judgment.

I like to think that we are all learning facilitators in our schools not just for students but also for other teachers. In this role teachers “break the norms of isolation” and open ourselves up to colleagues. Often times when we are beginning to facilitate learning for our students we model first and I hope that we could get comfortable with vulnerability to do this with our colleagues as well. Showing our learning and focusing in on our ability to learn from one another would only serve to grow our own leadership and the craft of all those involved.

Being a mentor takes transparency and vulnerability as well. In order to offer mentorship, guidance, and advice we often have to admit our own struggles. I can see how a vulnerable, truthful mentor and not someone who just seems to have all the answers all the times, would be someone that grows a stronger collegial bond and be a stronger mentor. To admit one’s own weaknesses allows mentors and mentees to connect and to be realistic. It also allows them both to seek clarification and answers and to be better all around from the process.

According to the article, being a school leader and serving on some sort of committee or team gives a leader an opportunity to share their vision of the school. It also allows you to align your professional goals with others and have responsibility for success of the school as a whole. What it also does is make you vulnerable to responsibility if the school is not successful in the goal of that committee or team. This is a big step for anyone. To share responsibility is to be vulnerable to the good and the bad. It is however so important. If no one is willing to be vulnerable to goals, change, and growth none of those things will be accomplished. Those who can do this and can open themselves up to this responsibility are integral to the movement of our schools.

I almost skipped the role of data coach because I couldn’t see how an everyday teacher would be in this situation and be vulnerable. I didn’t however because I realized that this was an incredibly vulnerable place to be, especially in an informal setting where you are looking at your data as well as others. To bring real data to the table and to be able to look at it objectively is terrifying for me; I don’t know about everyone else. I force myself to do it, but I do feel so incredibly vulnerable every time. I think that people who are willing to bring data are brave and wonderful. If the data is then used to facilitate conversations that have the potential to improve teaching and learning, then it’s all worth it. This does take a level of vulnerability and trust however, for everyone involved.

Catalyst for change are always vulnerable. Just the name describes someone who will be criticized and loved all at the same time. Change is often unpopular and I find the more it is needed sometimes the more it seems to be fought against. Being a catalyst for change, no matter how much needed, is a place for those who can take some punches, who can expose themselves and be incredibly vulnerable. I find that those who are against change often also have the sharpest tongues. I also find myself really looking up to those movers and shakers who can lead by lighting a fire and not sitting idle being okay with how things are. I am always looking for “a better way”, in fact I will always be looking for the best way and encouraging others to try new things until we find it.
Lastly, it is an incredibly vulnerable role to be the learner. In all of these roles, we are both leaders and learners and the most important is the learner. Always learning and admitting that is how we become better teachers and our students better learners as well.

All of these roles require use to be vulnerable. Our entire profession requires us to be vulnerable. It is a time in our profession when change in the system is forcing us to be vulnerable. To adopt the new standards and to make that major shift makes us vulnerable. To complete the new evaluation process for sure makes us vulnerable. I do however truly believe that embracing these changes and getting comfortable being vulnerable is the way to being a better teacher. Sometimes we have to stop fighting to stay comfortable and see that at the end of the day it takes an amazing amount of change, transparency, and vulnerability to make real changes in student learning. I know that when I am being the most vulnerable with my administrators, my colleagues, and my students I am learning more, I am leading more, and my students are ultimately being more successful.

If you have a chance to ever make it to a leadership conference you should not miss the opportunity. There is another one coming up next May. You can join the email list here. It will refuel your fire and hopefully inspire you or remind you to be any or all of the roles for teacher leaders. Teacher leaders inspire other teachers and students. Our impact on student learning and success is vast and important. Go out there and get vulnerable.

3 thoughts on “The Important Practice of Vulnerability

  1. Hope Teague-Bowling

    I appreciate your post and insights on vulnerability. Too often leaders seem to think they need to be perfect and keep imperfections behind closed doors. Yet, is it not through our dilemmas and struggles that we learn the most?!

    My favorite line in your post is the following,
    “Sometimes we have to stop fighting to stay comfortable and see that at the end of the day it takes an amazing amount of change, transparency, and vulnerability to make real changes in student learning.”


Comments are closed.