Navigating Vulnerability Part 1: Content-Related Skills

navigating vulnerability

Anyone who takes on a coaching role likely finds themselves navigating the deep waters of vulnerability several times a day. It’s tricky and oftentimes uncomfortable. Vulnerability can manifest itself in many different ways. We’re all learners, and we’re all human, after all. Some of us shrink back; others get defensive. Sometimes, as a coach, I’m able to identify it right away. Just like with our students, these adult learners ask questions or tell us when something isn’t clicking. Other times, it’s harder to recognize. And sometimes, it’s so hard to recognize that it takes me… well, longer than it probably should.

But, as Tom Newkirk points out in his book Embarrassment, better understanding our vulnerabilities is crucial to our learning process. I’ve lived in Michigan my whole life, where we’re surrounded by lakes, so although I’m biased, I think boating might be a good metaphor. If you’re out on the water and you run into a stiff chop, it’s tough run away from it. You can’t stop your boat and expect it to solve anything, but you might need to adjust your speed to safely get where you’re going. It’s also not advisable to head directly headfirst into the wind. Instead, you need to angle your boat and navigate the complexities of the waves, the current, and the wind.

For my beat during second semester, I’m going to explore this in a series: Navigating Vulnerability. In each post, I’ll take a look at a different vulnerability that I’ve learned to recognize in myself and in those I work with through coaching, and I’ll explore ways to safely steer toward new learning. Today’s first installment in the series will examine our comfort level with content-related skills.

Now, content comfort level may seem like an odd choice for a first vulnerability to explore in the series. Teachers are professionals. We are highly qualified with certifications, degrees, and infinite experiences to say so. But to be uncomfortable with some aspects of the content doesn’t negate any of that. We are human, and there’s no possible way we can be experts in every single thing – even within our content areas. I liken this to the weird phenomenon with English teachers where it’s almost taboo to admit that you haven’t read a book that’s considered canon. When someone starts talking about War and Peace, we nod and play along, pretending we’ve read it because we don’t want to admit a vulnerability. But in reality, it’s grossly unrealistic to expect that we’ve read every book deemed to be “a classic.” (Never mind the problematic assumptions with what becomes a classic.)

The reality is that standards have changed – for many educators multiple times throughout their careers. Assessments have changed – again, many times. There’s nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable in new waters.

Over the past few years, I’ve heard some of the same feedback over and over again. The wording varies, but it always seems to go something like this:  “My kids can’t do that.”

My gut reaction has long been to feel angry or to jump to the kids’ defense, and, to be honest, there’s probably a lot to unpack there to warrant those feelings. But, if there’s anything I’ve learned as a coach, it’s that I also need to step back and listen to what the teacher is saying.  

I don’t think it’s a conscious thing that we do, as teachers, when we say it’s the kids who can’t handle it instead of recognizing our own vulnerability. But, I do think that it’s my job as a coach to try to recognize when these vulnerabilities might be creeping in. If I can better understand how the teacher is feeling, only then can I begin to support the teacher and their students.

First they say: My kids can’t handle so much choice in how they write

But keep listening: They need more prescriptive directions.

And listening some more: I mean, I had to read tons and tons of examples to figure it out to be able to tell them.

So what might be an underlying vulnerability? Content Comfort Level

We need to have a deep understanding and comfort level with the content to recognize the many ways our students may engage in the learning. Otherwise, we may see when kids aren’t doing something we want them to do, but we may not be able to recognize what they can do.

So how do we steer into and with this vulnerability around our content skills?

Here are a couple of strategies I’ve found to be helpful so far:

1. Do the work you want your students to do.

One group of teachers I was working with was about to start a new unit on argumentative writing. The first week of the curriculum had students reading several op-ed mentor texts to determine the criteria for writing an op-ed. “But what is the criteria?” one teacher asked, hoping for me to point her in the direction of a list or a resource. A few others nodded their heads; they had been wondering the same thing. I’m sure I probably could have supplied a quick answer, but instead we took a step back.

“Let’s look at that,” I replied. And we spent the majority of that PLC meeting time on our iPads, reading through recent op-eds to engage in the same mentor text observational work that they’d ask their students to do. Together, we came up with a list, and the teacher felt better – not only because she had a list, but because she better understood what her students would need to do.

2. Unpack the skills; make them visible.

The beauty of a truly differentiated assignment is that it has several entry points. Many, especially in the math world, call this having a “low floor, high ceiling.” Distilled down, it means that we’re giving students an important, engaging question to explore, with many different ways to approach it and many different skills and skill levels that can go into solving it.

So try posting one of those tasks on a board. Then use sticky notes to label all of the different skills that students may bring to the table in order to enter into this work. Each skill gets its own sticky note. And don’t forget about some of those skills that may be hiding beyond what you originally intended in the assignment. If, for example, you want students to work in a group to determine the qualities of a good introduction, of course they need to have some comprehension and analysis skills, but what about their cooperative speaking and listening skills?

I did this once with a PLC where we cut apart our state standards and used them to label some of our assignments and lessons. It was illuminating to see how some assignments that were weighted very heavily touched on only a few standards, but some assignments that teachers tended to rush because they saw them as “fluff” actually packed in a whole lot more skills.

It may be enough to make these skills concretely visible on sticky notes, but it might also be worth taking it a step further. Can you put them on a continuum? Are some needed before others? More complex than others? This can help give you a better idea of how to guide students who “can’t” do one of the skills by recognizing what they can do.

3. Ask your students.

I’ve often given students reflections or self-assessments following a lesson that asked them to rate their own understanding of the work. I believe very strongly in the power of self-assessment, but I’ve also realized that sometimes I’m too limiting in these. Instead of offering a rubric-style reflection, I’ve recently tried asking more open-ended questions like:

What skills did you feel like you already had that helped you today?

What skills do you think are growing as a result of today’s work?

What skills do you feel like you need to build in order to do better on this?

Students’ answers help me get a better idea of their metacognitive understanding of the task I’m asking them to do, and they even help me recognize some of those less explicit skills involved.

What do you do to steer into the vulnerability related to content skills? How do you build your confidence and learn? This is only one of many vulnerabilities that can get in the way of teaching and learning. What else have you recognized in your practice? Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt.

– Megan

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