“What Would You Do Even If You Failed?”: Risk and Vulnerability
“What would you do even if you failed?” These words from Elizabeth Gilbert guided my time with a group of teachers, coaches and administrators with whom I have been working for the last couple of months. This particular class session was focused on risk and vulnerability.
I’ll begin with a story that I shared with the teachers about how I got started teaching mindfulness.
In the winter of 2015, I was contacted by a woman whom I respect and love. She wanted me to write a chapter for a book written for teacher and by teachers. The content and format was totally up to me.
At the time, I was in a major life transition. I knew I was going to be leaving my job, but I had no idea what I was sending myself into afterward. The only piece in place so far was that I would be starting a counseling program through Methodist Theological School of Ohio (where I am now a student).
During this huge life transition, I had begun a number of practice that had helped me. One of them was mindfulness. Honestly, without my formal meditation practice, I don’t know how I would have stayed grounded through all of the experience. (To read more about my personal mindfulness journey, you can click here; this is actually the beginning of the book chapter that I wrote).
Because of my personal experience, my interest in action research, and my desire to serve teachers in my role as an instructional coach, I decided to use this opportunity to offer a voluntary after-school workshop for teachers who were interested in mindfulness.
I will try to simplify this story. I began teaching mindfulness and I knew, pretty much immediately, that this was where my work would be moving forward. Life affirmed this for me by providing a willing group of participants who went on a two-month mindfulness journey with me and experienced positive changes along the way.
That summer, the school year had ended, and I was in a two-week workshopping session with a group of wonderful and diverse women who were also writing book chapters. The writing flowed for me with an ease rarely experienced in my life, and in the end of the process, I was proud of what I had accomplished.
Imagine my surprise when months later, I received a call from my editor telling me the chapter would be cut.
Why? Well, one reason was because I had honestly told my own story. I had admitted that I had a struggling marriage, that someone I loved was dying, that I has used alcohol and nicotine to numb the pain, that I had eventually had to seek treatment for depression. These things “put me at risk,” in the words of the supervising editor for my book, a well respected figure in the field of education. My own editor fought for me, but in the end, this was the final decision. I would not be in the book.
This was ironic. Here is a selection from the chapter I had written to show why:
“… as I came to have a closer relationship with teachers and shared my story with them, I heard the personal-life challenges they were facing, too. Like myself, other teachers suffered with anxiety and depression. They straddled the line between difficult marriage and pending divorce. They drank too much. They cried for sick family members mourned those who had died or were dying. So many of the things I thought I was facing alone because I was too ashamed to share them, they were all carrying, too, and with teaching expectations I couldn’t imagine handling at the same time…
My primary goal for teaching mindfulness was to help teachers heal and find empowerment for their own sake. As a full-time classroom teacher, I had sometimes felt isolated and swimming in the noise of the classroom. In addition, I had begun to feel undervalued or even “unseen” by those who should have been my support system. As an instructional coach, I saw the same feelings and experiences I had in each of my teachers in different moments and in different ways. In addition outside of classrooms in meetings and trainings, I found myself continually advocating for teachers as human beings, not just deliverers or facilitators. While the message to teachers about students has been to focus on “relationship” and seeing our students as “whole people” for as long as I had been in the classroom, I found a lack of using this same pedagogy for helping teachers grow and change as learning individuals. Why the disconnect? Teachers are humans, and yet I didn’t hear anyone talking about them as dynamic and evolving learners with personal lives. Instead they were asked to, “check their humanity at the door” each day in order to meet the needs of every student who walked in the classroom. Teachers aren’t allowed to suffer, be angry, be sad, or be scared. And yet, we still do.”
First of all, this is in no way an indictment of the district in which I was (and am) working. This is a universal issue in education. Furthermore, teachers are not the only ones who feel this way, I have learned since. I have had this same conversation with administrators, doctors, lawyers and psychotherapist who all feel similarly. “Check your humanity at the door; you are here to help people.” What damage this message does. It’s the reason I do the work that I do.
I was never sorry that I began this journey of discovering who I really was and opening that person up to share herself with the world in real and vulnerable ways, but it is a risk, and it comes with a cost. I am willing to pay it, over and over and over again. And I will. Because that is life. It never stops unfolding, and the line between “me” and “you” keeps moving in an elusive and enrapturing way throughout it all.
Human connection. That is what risk and vulnerability is always about.
This is too messy.
Why am I even doing this.
This is silly.
People will look at me.
I will look stupid.
They will judge me.
They will pull away from me.
I will not be worthy of love.
These are the things we tell ourselves before we take a risk, whatever it is. It could be talking to a stranger at a party or it could be applying for a TEDTalk. Whatever it is, these words, and the body sensations that accompany them, the fast heart beat, the rapid breath, the tingling in the stomach, are all just a trigger to know we are reaching the edge of growth.
So back to the question:
What would you do even if you failed? This is some of what was said in the workshop:
Be a wife… again
Take a chance on love
All the things I have wanted to do but haven’t out of fear
Go back to school
I asked this question in the workshop, and there were smiles and tears as we shared the things that pushed us toward our edges.
It was intense, and real, and healing, and it doesn’t happen enough, in my opinion.
I am so lucky to have the opportunity to work with this group of people in a district (the same district in which I worked as a coach and classroom educator) that has recognized the power and the importance of growing students and growing teachers. It is no overstatement to say that this is the work of my life, and I am filled with gratitude for every person who allows our lives to touch in the process.
Questions? Opinions? Connections? Please share!