Blog: Milestones

8 Oct 2019

Awkward.

Awkward.

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!

9 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.

—Katy
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.

—Maranda
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.

—Kiara
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.

—Bridget
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.

—Hollie
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.

—William
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.

—Kelsey
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.

—Nicole
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.

—Kayla
12/8/2019 10:49 PM

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Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is an ELA teacher at Frontier Middle School in Hamburg, New York, a recipient of the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year award, and author of the AMLE/Routledge book The Flexible SEL Classroom. In this blog, Amber examines milestones that make teaching in the middle a truly unique experience, and shares ideas from middle level educators that ensure we reach every student, no matter what it takes. < blog home