By: Amber Chandler

Want to know awkward? Sitting in a circle of teenagers, asking them to pass a "talking piece" around while they share their thoughts upon completing their first full week of school. I went first to model what one might say in this loud silence. "Well, I'm new to the building too, so I'm feeling pretty nervous that I'm going to make a mistake. I don't know where things are, so I feel like I look lost. I definitely feel like everyone is noticing me because I am new, which I'd rather not happen." I had explained to these students—some who were friends, many who were not, and a few who really don't care for each other at all—that we'd need to trust one another to maintain confidence if this plan to be a support for one another was going to work.

The REACH Alternative Learning Community that is being piloted at my high school includes a REACH period where I lead students through a circle each day, help them organize to go home, and offer a listening ear as they debrief their days. The circles have been going pretty well, growing less and less weird. I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about the vulnerability that I'm asking these students to have, and I've realized that it is perhaps the single most complicated dilemma in education. Hear me out.

When students don't know how to do things, there aren't good structures in place to allow them to get help. Think about it. How many times have you asked, "Does everyone understand? Any questions?" I've done this. I do this. I'm trying to stop. Why? Because I'm coming to realize that we ask students to do what is fundamentally impossible for vulnerable children: admit, in front of their peers, that they are "other."

We are, by asking them this type of question, expecting them to shed their self-consciousness, their self-doubt, and their armor and ask for help. Unless we deliberately create safe spaces where we model vulnerability and provide an actual community for students, we are never going to see students ask for help amongst the judgmental adolescents around them.

If, on the other hand, we create communities where students know each other, support each other, and value risk-taking without fear of failure, then we just might overcome this dilemma.

Have you ever asked a student, "How are you?" and they respond, "Crappy" or "Awful"? Did you offer a platitude like, "That's too bad" or "Sorry to hear that" or "Tomorrow will be better"? I have. I do. But, I'm trying to stop. If we ask the question, we need to be honored when students open the door for us to find out what is really going on with them, but most of the time, for a wide variety of legitimate reasons, we don't really take their invitation.

If, on the other hand, we were to ask a follow-up question, offer the student a chance to talk with a counselor, or simply listen to them, relationships will develop that allow us to become that caring adult who can impact the course of their lives.

But it's awkward. The fact is, as adults, we aren't very good at being vulnerable either. I don't know about you, but I've sure as heck acted like I knew what was going on (just this past week, in fact) when I definitely didn't. I've responded to someone asking how I am with "Not so great, actually," hoping that they might inquire just a little bit so I could unburden myself, and when they say, "Join the crowd" or "TGIF" instead of saying, "Oh no. What's going on?" I'm disappointed.

As adults who can have such an influence on children, and indeed do have that impact whether we are intentional or not, we have an amazing opportunity to model the vulnerability that will make us better communities. But wow, it is awkward. How do you forge relationships with students and encourage community, especially with those who aren't as willing? Share your thoughts in the comments, follow me on Twitter (@MsAmberChandler) and use #AMLE. Hint: this is another way to practice intentional vulnerability!

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21 comments on article "Awkward."

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. I am an elementary teacher, so the fear of peer judgement is a little less evident, but it is still there. I couldn't agree more that we need to find ways to allow students to feel safe and allow themselves to be vulnerable. I think developing a strong classroom community is the first step. I like your REACH program meeting time where students can debrief their day. I think that is a good starting point for sure. I know that our middle school just started a 15 minute advisory period with that similar intention. I think it takes baby steps, and maybe guidance counselors can help give us suggestions, but talking to our students, repeatedly, about accepting and honoring what others say is important. Modeling that mistakes and differences are treasures, and making everyone feel valued is the foundation to getting people to start to have conversations and open up.

11/10/2019 4:02 PM

I found your thoughts on this topic to be eye opening in a way. I am a second grade teacher now, but in the past I have taught upper elementary into middle grades and I had had times where I would ask students what was wonder and they would tell me. There were times where the students would break down crying while unloading their emotions for the day, but there were others times the students would not talk to me about it. I find that since I have started teaching younger children I don't check in with them as much as I feel like I should. I really like the feeling of community you are creating in your classroom with the circle time and definitely think this is something that could cross over into my elementary classroom.

11/17/2019 9:34 PM

I really like the idea of a REACH meeting where students can debrief about their day. I think it is really important to give students time to share what is bothering them or something exciting that has happened to them. A lot of times, we don't build in time to have these conversations. These meetings could make a world of a difference to students who come from all different backgrounds. It also gives each of them a chance to connect and learn through other students.

12/2/2019 9:39 AM

As a middle school teacher I find that being vulnerable is almost taboo to most kids. They don't want to be singled out, they don't want to be different and they most certainly don't want to open up the door to be made fun of. I appreciate how you pointed out that many students will not speak out when asked if everyone in the class gets it. While everyone in the class may have the same confusion no one wants to be singled out as the one who doesn't understand. By building that community within the class, showing that all people make mistakes and are confused (including the teacher) hopefully it will allows them to feel okay with not getting it the first time. I definitely need to be more aware of the need for community building and providing time in a class period for those open discussions.

12/3/2019 11:50 AM

Working with middle school students, I find it hard to be vulnerable with them but this topic is rather eye-opening. If we are not vulnerable with our students, how can we expect them to open up to us? It is a wonderful idea to build a community within the class and allow them to realize that just because they feel a certain way or that they do not understand something doesn't mean that there is something necessarily wrong. Building a strong community ensures that students will feel more comfortable with their peers and with us.

12/6/2019 3:18 PM

That does sound completely awkward at first! I do not think I would really know what to do in that situation because I am still new to teaching and being in a new school is pretty intimidating. I agree that being vulnerable is something that we, as humans, are not really comfortable with because of our society that we live in today. A lot of people judge due to anything they can find; even being online and making a post on a blog makes you vulnerable to anything. Cyberbullying is something I think has been on a huge incline, and, as teachers, we should try to stop this kind of interaction and ensure our classrooms are safe environments.

12/8/2019 12:34 AM

I have also asked the questions "Does anyone have and questions or don't understand?" As a future math content area teacher, I want my students to know that we learn best from incorrect answers. the students will feel very vulnerable when I ask that question but I want the students to feel like my classroom is a safe space to be incorrect and the we will all support one another. Vulnerability is a big thing to ask middle school students to be but by creating a support environment, the students will gain courage to be put in that vulnerable spot in the classroom.

12/8/2019 11:10 AM

In my limited experience in the classroom setting, I have noticed that teachers (particularly in mathematics) sometimes add to students' feelings of vulnerability and anxiety by not acknowledging their thinking in totality. Oftentimes, in students' thinking, there is a lot that is "right" and deserves merit, but we focus on the end result which may be "wrong" or simply different from what we anticipated. When a teacher focuses on that one "wrong" part of their response, they are not valuing their contribution and are effectively discouraging them from offering their ideas for the future.

12/8/2019 4:06 PM

I really like the idea of a REACH meeting where students can debrief about their day. I think it is really important to give students time to share what is bothering them or something exciting that has happened to them. A lot of times, we don't build in time to have these conversations. These meetings could make a world of a difference to students who come from all different backgrounds. It also gives each of them a chance to connect and learn through other students.

12/8/2019 10:49 PM

I really enjoyed this article. As a future middle school teacher (yes I am still in school), I am always so worried about trying to get my students to open up not only to me but to their peers. I want my future students to feel comfortable in my room and able to debrief on their day and able to release any built up emotion that will hopefully give some sort of relief to them. Thank you for this article, I will always remember it.

4/7/2020 1:06 AM

A REACH meeting would be a really great idea! I am a future middle grades educator and I am just now learning about adolescent development. These children need that time to reflect on their day and discuss what has been bothering them. They often come home angry and upset at a friend or at something that was posted on social media. These meetings could happen at the end of the day a few minutes prior to dismissal. This would definitely make a difference to these students, especially those from different backgrounds. It would also give another opportunity for teachers to build relationships with their students more quickly.

4/19/2020 5:27 PM

This blog is an important topic to talk about. I’ve had a few experiences like the story in this blog. Some I feel proud of my response, like I was there for the student and also offered help from a counselor. There are other times where I’ve felt quiet, and should’ve at least given my input and said encouraging words. It’s true that when a student is telling you something personal they’re opening up and trusting you. Especially when you ask them how they are you should be ready to offer some sort of emotional support if you don’t get the typical I’m doing great response. This gives some teachers who are hesitant the confidence and assurance to be emotional there for students when they are vulnerable.

4/20/2020 6:50 PM

I really enjoyed this blog post because it was very real. Modeling opening up to our adolescents can be extremely awkward, however it is imperative if we are going to build real relationships with our students. Your comment that our students saying they had a bad day was an invitation that educators often dismiss with a simple "sorry to hear that" was eye opening to me. I had never thought of students honesty as being an invitation for a real conversation with them, but it is exactly that. As educators, we need to be cognizant of these invitations and take every single one we get. Even if there is not an opportunity in that very moment to have a conversation, it is important to follow up with that student to build that relationship, no matter how awkward it may be.

4/21/2020 11:02 PM

I really enjoyed reading this blog post because this is such a realistic topic. It put the realization into my head that we ask students questions that don't provide us with accurate feedback. Like, "do you all understand?" You make such a valid point that it takes a lot for adolescents to express their opinions in front of their peers. As a future teacher, it will be extremely important for me to create a positive learning environment and positive relationships with my students. The title of your blog does a perfect job at introducing the idea of awkwardness in the classroom and you do a fantastic job at creating this realization.

4/23/2020 4:33 PM

This looks like a great way for an educator to connect with new students. It also looks like a great way for students to learn to take care of their mental health. The school I attended in high school did something similar, but instead of teachers seniors talked to a class of freshmen during study hall about their adjustment to high school and mentored them through their freshman year.

4/26/2020 5:06 PM

I want to create a comfortable and safe place in my classroom for students to be vulnerable to me and in front of their peers. I believe the REACH meeting would be great to have in the school. Where students can debrief from their day. It is hard to catch yourself asking those questions. Myself never answered those questions in class and I do not want to put that pressure on my students. I want my students to feel comfortable sharing with me and others in the classroom. I really enjoyed this blog and very eye opening from the teachers perspective and the teacher reading that the students were uncomfortable being vulnerable.

4/27/2020 11:40 PM

I really like the idea of students having the opportunity to debrief at the end of the day. I think it is really important to give students the opportunity to share what is on their mind or something exciting that has happened to them. A lot of times, we don't have time to have these conversations, but REACH meetings could make a world of a difference to students who come from all different backgrounds. It gives them a chance to connect and learn from other students.

4/29/2020 1:54 PM

The title of your blog sums up middle school...awkward. I remember being a middle schooler myself and having some of those peer judgement fears as you described. As a future middle school teacher I hope to reflect on my own middle school experience to make sure I am including the best practices into my teaching. I agree with you completely on giving students time to talk about their own lives. Students dread going to school, and I think as teachers we can help make school more exciting by allowing them some time to be a middle schooler and be excited about sharing about themselves or what is going on in their lives. This will help build relationships with our students.

4/29/2020 8:28 PM

The title of your Blog caught my eye because when I tell people that I am a middle school education major, they go through a list of adjectives that they think middle schoolers are, and awkward is one of those words. When I started to read your post, I realized that your REACH program is very similar to the Social Emotional Learning program that our school district has in place. Instead of doing "circle" every day, we do it once a week right now. I completely agree that at first, it is a very vulnerable feeling for yourself as well as the student, but eventually, they do find it a safe place and start to trust each other. I love this time during the day because it's a relaxing time for students to get what they need off their chests and can go on with their day without that weight.

11/8/2020 9:06 PM

REACH alternative learning communities sound like a really interesting and progressive strategy to move towards encouraging this vulnerability that is so important. I really appreciate how faceted this blog post is covering an initiative, an aligning, issue, solutions, and possible roots of this whole dilemma. I believe an end of the day program like this could be just as important as an advisory or home room to start the day. Allowing students time to debrief and gather themselves could help many adjustments just like the one mentioned at the beginning of the post talking about starting at a new school. Something that caught my attention I had not thought about so much before was how an educators vulnerability levels can only influence students to do the same. It makes sense. Teachers teach much more than content, so why wouldn't we expect students to mirror something such as vulnerability levels. What an important issue and an even better solution.

12/4/2020 10:24 PM

Thank you for sharing about this topic. It made me realize a lot of the habits I have as well. Sometimes it's a positive thing to take a step back and put ourselves back in the middle school shoes. I think the REACH program is something that is so great to implement. Being vulnerable is no easy task. If we are able to model this and give our students the comfortability to be vulnerable with us, a lot more can happen both inside and outside the classroom.

12/5/2020 12:59 AM

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