In Brené Brown’s opening plenary talk at Summit 2015, she explained how the findings from her research into vulnerability, courage, and worthiness present an opportunity for educators to help students experience emotion fully and acquire the strength of character they need to address challenges. In the hour-long Q&A session following her talk, Brené delved deeper into questions of how teachers, administrators and school designers can build a culture of vulnerability in schools.
The session was standing room only, and attendees were abuzz with the emotional charge of Brené’s opening talk. Many of the people who asked questions probed for advice about how to apply the lessons from Brené’s research.
One participant discussed the tension between vulnerability and the accountability inherent in K-12 education. In some schools, he observed, practices that shame students for bad behavior or poor performance are built into the culture. He bravely asked how to get the high scores his schools needed to report success to funders and government agencies, saying, “What alternatives do I have that will still get results?”
Brown advocated for new teaching methodologies: “We have to develop a new pedagogy that is both metrics-focused and whole-hearted,” she said. Furthermore, she challenged our sector to build new ways of thinking about school performance, saying, “the very public shaming of teachers, students, administrators and school systems is unholy. It’s the opposite of how we should be talking about education, and it filters down to the kids.” The solution to the problem we are facing in education, said Brown, “doesn’t exist yet. And it will only come from people like you,” she told the audience, “people who have lived it.”
Brené suggested a few ways of thinking about the problem in order to yield some solutions. First and foremost, she encouraged us to embody a sense of kindness in our interactions with others – and in our own thoughts. She suggested that when we communicate with the people around us – and when we “self-talk,” or engage in our inner dialogue, we should communicate the same way we would talk to a best friend. That kindness, said Brown, can enable the reflection people need in order to catalyze changes in behavior. “In shame we are hustling to self-protect; in feeling guilt, we can be vulnerable to change.”
Secondly, to create vulnerability in our relationships and in our school cultures, she advised that we begin with a shared language – and train everyone, especially senior leaders, in that language, embedding the language of vulnerability, and by extension, a new way of understanding our world and our interactions into the culture.
Another approach to addressing shame may seem counterintuitive: storytelling. “The storytelling needs to happen at every level. You can’t talk about vulnerability without being authentically vulnerable yourself. If you can’t own your privilege you can’t have those conversations.The leaders of our schools often don’t reflect the experiences of the student body. We need that to change. We need those experiences in the room.”
Another participant asked, “When you are the perpetrator of shame, how do you walk it back? How do you correct that?”
Brené referenced a Maya Angelou quote: “When we know better, we do better.” While it might not be possible to take it back, you can move it forward. And in terms of changing the culture in our school systems, Brown said, “The only people who think it is not possible are those who don’t want to do it.”