Vulnerability & Building Trust

Several years ago I wrote a letter to Billy Martin, a drummer, percussionist, artist and now an Artistic Director of the Creative Music Studio. I had received a signed copy of one of his vinyl records because I had made a small donation in support of the studio he was building, The Herman House Gallery.

To express my gratitude I sat down to write him a short thank you note which turned into something of a three-page letter.  As a fellow drummer, I shared my musical path and lamented the fact that I was no longer playing music regularly or had the ability to be creative since I had become a school administrator.  To my astonishment, he took the time to not only read my letter but to actually write back! 

His response was thoughtful and I could tell he had read my letter. Rather than dismiss my missive to him as the ravings of a crazy person, he was empathetic in his response and challenged me to do one thing.  Be creative, make art every day.

When I began to reflect on his challenge, Be creative, make art every day I began to look for those opportunities to be impactful in meaningful ways. 

I thought about my time in the classroom.  As teachers, we take hours to plan and prepare our lessons and units.  We differentiate material for the students that need something a little more or level materials in order to meet their exact needs. We design pre & post assessments and make sure that we are collecting data and following the scope and sequence. That is part of the science of being a teacher. 

However, the moments that I remember most in the classroom where not the times I was a scientist. It was those times I felt like an artist.  Those times when the plan fell apart and I had to improvise the lesson based on the direction the students were asking questions and displaying passion about the subject.

By deviating from the prescribed plan, I left myself vulnerable to the students as we explored their questions and interests together.  I didn’t always have all the answers and we had to explore together. This vulnerability created an atmosphere of trust within the classroom where the students could see their teacher traveling with them on their learning journey.  This is the art of teaching. Establishing trust and journeying together.

As Principal I may not get those moments often, if at all, with students. Instead, I get the opportunity to create and design with teachers on a different level.  I used to view my faculty and staff as over fifty different individuals with various competing needs and desires.  Today, however, I view the faculty as a collection of professionals as if they were an improvisational jazz group. 

In order for any improvisational group (i.e. musical or comedy group) to be successful, they must possess two traits.  First, they need to have a solid foundation of their craft.  Second, they must trust the group with whom they are working. The most successful improvisational groups are willing to be vulnerable in order to take risks, go somewhere new and create something greater than one person is capable of doing alone. Teachers are no different.

Together, the teachers and I have a solid background in our content knowledge. It is from there which we based all of our practices and discussions, it is our common language.  However, the culture of the school had not begun to change.  Our expertise alone did not create a positive creative environment.  It wasn’t until I shared my vulnerability with the teachers that they began to take risks instructional risks of their own.

I had to demonstrate that, as a leader,  I wasn’t the wealth of all knowledge.  That I valued and needed the points of view of others.  By forming committees, teams and departments I was able to “give the work back” to the teachers and demonstrate that I trusted their decisions and valued their expertise.

This is probably a bad idea but…

I also share my vulnerability by sharing my good ideas and bad ideas.  Often times I begin a statement with, “This is probably a bad idea but…” or “Here is an awful idea…” as a way to invite criticism and demonstrate that I do not have all of the answers.

When teachers feel safe and supported they begin to encourage one another to take instructional risks. Taking these risks exposes their own vulnerability because they know their efforts may not succeed.  However, the freedom to fail as a teacher and come out on the other side, informs our school culture and builds upon their unconscious actions and beliefs.  More faculty end up taking risks and trying new instructional practices. 

Teachers don’t take risks out of some sort of competition.  Instead, teachers can subconsciously feel the supportive environment which they have had a hand in creating.   Now when I speak with teachers or better yet, have a chance to overhear their conversations, I don’t solely look at the informational content of what they are saying.

Instead, I look and listen for how the message is being sent. The active listening, the “yes and…”, “tell me more about that” and “have you considered..” comments tell me about the relationships that are forming and how the teachers are becoming more comfortable sharing vulnerability with one another.

As a school leader, this is the creative process and art I strive to make every day.  To establish and nurture the conditions in order to form a more positive school environment and culture.

For example, this afternoon, I get to attend a faculty meeting and listen to a first-grade teacher deliver a short TED-style talk to her fellow teachers about how her classroom implements the 16 Habits of Mind. 

Handing over a faculty meeting to teachers so they can speak about whatever ignites their passion is a risk I am willing to take. I am showing the teachers, let’s try something new. I have no clue if it will work but let’s give it a shot. 

And for this first-grade teacher, I know she will feel vulnerable presenting to her peers the exciting work they are doing in their classroom. Is there anything much more intimidating for a teacher than to present to her own peers? I think not. But she is trusting her colleagues will receive her with openness and honestly. I know they will.

 I wouldn’t have it any other way. After all, you can’t create great art without taking some risks. Isn’t that the point?

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