“Confident vulnerability” takes the fear out of failure
Paul Freeman
September 25, 2019

Learning requires failure.

There is no way around it. If our students are not trying and failing at times, they are not stretching themselves, and we as educators are not pushing them to reach for more. When they try, fail, and try again, they learn from the mistakes of the past and try new approaches. They also learn non-academic lessons about persistence and determination that will serve them throughout their lives.

But failing is hard. It means we did not achieve what we were hoping to, and often leaves us questioning our ability to succeed at all. To ensure that we create an atmosphere of teaching and learning in which students and teachers feel safe and eager to try, fail, and try again, at Guilford Public Schools we work to model an attitude of “confident vulnerability” from the top down.

Confident Vulnerability

One reason confident vulnerability is at the center of our approach to teaching and learning is because it is so necessary to each role in our district, from students all the way to the superintendent. Growth of an individual or an organization is only possible when we are open to the idea that we might need to change how we do or understand things, but growth also requires the confidence to believe we can do better, to try new and possibly untested ideas, and to fail, often publicly.

Students must be vulnerable enough to learn and to trust their teachers’ guidance, yet confident enough to take risks in class and to believe they can learn. Teachers must also be vulnerable enough to realize they have room to improve as educators and confident in their willing to take risks in front of students and in their belief that they can grow professionally. (Not to mention that they need the confidence required to take such risks in environments in which they are being measured and evaluated.) We strive to be administrators and school and district leaders who are confident and decisive enough that others want to follow them. The most effective leaders, though, accept that they do not know everything, not only in terms of their own professional growth, but also when it comes to new approaches to teaching from the teachers they guide.

To make sure an attitude of confident vulnerability pervades our district, we focus on leading by example from the central office through to the classrooms.

Leading by Example

One key component in modeling confident vulnerability in our district is the use of video in coaching and in principal professional learning. A couple of years ago, our instructional coaches began recording video of their work with teachers as they provided feedback. The purpose was not to capture the teacher’s response or further analyze or evaluate their teaching, but to allow the instructional coaches to reflect on their own performance as they delivered feedback and to share it with other instructional coaches to look for areas they could improve upon.

We liked the idea of coaches modeling a commitment to their own professional improvement so much that we quickly expanded the program. We adopted a video observation and coaching platform (ours was from Insight ADVANCE), and I required each principal in our district to record, reflect upon, and then share with me at least three videos each year.  We have since moved our coaches to the same platform for the sake of consistency.

At first there was some grumbling and self-deprecating jokes about having to view themselves on video, but principals quickly started coming back and saying, “I'm really enjoying watching myself. As soon as I got over not liking what my voice sounds like or how I look on video, I did way more of these! I'm not even sharing them all with you. I'm just recording them and watching them myself, and I'm finding it really helpful.”

As a result, when our principals offer our teachers guidance now, they are often not only providing actionable feedback on strengths and weaknesses, but giving a practical, real-time example of that principal’s commitment to improving his or her own practice and continued professional growth.

Humble Inquiry

Another important piece of our lead-by-example approach is inspired by Edgar Schein’s work on humble inquiry and the idea of leading by asking sincere and curious questions rather than telling people what to do. This models the kind of growth mindset we are looking to inspire in a couple of ways.

First, asking questions instead of telling a teacher how they “should have done it” requires the principal or coach to accept that they do not know everything, particularly in subjects where they are not a content expert. They have to be open to the idea that the teachers they lead may actually have a good reason for their choices, and it requires them to be open to learning something new.

But it also demonstrates behavior we ask teachers to engage in with their students every day. We do not want teachers to simply tell students where they went wrong. We expect them to sit with them and ask how they came to their answer, and work through it to learn how to produce better results next time.

By asking our teachers sincere and curious questions about their choices, our principals are demonstrating the individualization, differentiation, and personalization we expect those teachers to engage in with their own students.

Failure is, by definition, never the optimal outcome, but it has to be an option for students. When we are vulnerable enough to position ourselves as learners and confident enough to lead from that position, we can inspire our students and their teachers to stretch for more, even if they stumble along the way.

Paul Freeman is the superintendent at Guilford Public Schools in Connecticut,which uses  Insight ADVANCE video observation and coaching platform. He is also a governing board member of AASA, The School Superintendents Association. He can be reached at freemanp@guilfordschools.org.

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