SEL in Schools: Why Education Leaders Should Express Their Vulnerabilities

The long overdue focus on social-emotional health in our nation’s schools brings with it many opportunities for growth through strengthening relationships between children and adults. This whole-child approach—correlating academic and social-emotional learning (SEL) skills and strategies—correctly places an emphasis on connecting personally with our students well beyond the content we teach them.

It’s no different for our staff. Teachers, paraeducators, custodians, cafeteria workers, secretaries, nurses, counselors, and central office personnel all have the same deep-seated need to belong to something larger than themselves. As humans, we are inspired by the warmth, compassion, and thoughtfulness of others. Whether your school is just beginning or has a mature understanding of SEL, those you lead will follow the culture you create for improved SEL health for an entire building.

There are a variety of winning moves that can help education leaders capture the support of adult followers and build stronger relationships. (A leader without followers is really just someone out for a walk, as John Maxwell noted.) These include visibility, availability, active listening, validation, humility, humor, accountability, and vulnerability.

All of the above demands intentional efforts to meet adult needs. And while it is difficult to rank the importance of each skill, vulnerability is one that is easily dismissed or even neglected by too many school leaders. Why? Too often, leaders see vulnerability as a weakness to be avoided or a slight to the strength they are supposed to hold at the ready to dispense at will. 

What Really Makes a Great Leader?

When we think of leaders, the following emotions or skills may immediately come to mind:

  • Demanding
  • Unforgiving
  • Strong
  • Definitive
  • Courageous
  • Omnipresent 

While this list is far from complete, it is rooted in beliefs about leaders reinforced through experience, mythology, or even storytelling, especially the motion picture variety that relies on stereotypical behaviors to convey meaning. The tough boss, cop, coach, or battle leader living on the page or on the screen or in our imaginations can leave us at a loss as we try to become our best leadership selves paling in comparison to such greatness.

Under such conditions, leaders can show no signs of weakness, even when they don’t have the answers or feel overwhelmed by the challenges of school. Putting up a courageous front may be face-saving but only in the short term, as conflict walks through schools on a revolving door. It’s better to model your own uncertainty and even seek help from colleagues and staff since daily demands will show up in need of solutions, and handling them all by one’s self will inhibit the ability to lead well. A leader’s social-emotional journey needs remedies similar to those we seek from preschool students to PhD candidates—so a leader should model the SEL process he or she is expecting staff and students to embark on. 

Far from a crack in the veneer, vulnerability provides an avenue into our leadership soul—how we struggle, suffer, and feel challenged by the difficult task of leading. In opposition to its agreed-upon definition, vulnerability at the leadership level does not open up oneself to harm. I would argue that it does the exact opposite—allowing those you lead to see you as authentically human with deficiencies as well as strengths, just like them, can be enlightening.

Leadership should not be defined by some unshakeable leader instinct, but by the strides leaders make to improve both the lives of their stakeholders and themselves. A large part of social-emotional growth is a reflective practice beyond a letter grade or evaluation. It’s what kids and adults take away from an experience as they determine or dismiss its worth through their experience and the metacognitive self talk they engage in after the fact: “I am a learner/teacher, and I can learn from this experience,” or “I am not worthy because I have disappointed/not lived up to my leader/teacher’s demands through the mistakes I have made.”

My Own Experiences as a School Principal

Modeling my own vulnerability through staff meetings, one-on-one discussions, or even in front of students was not easy. It took great courage to admit I was wrong, to question my own plans, to ask for help, or even to admit frustration. There’s no doubt I had to know my audience and share appropriately, based both on how well they knew me and how much I wanted to reveal. But here’s the important takeaway from allowing myself to be vulnerable to those I led: it created the conditions not only for my growth but also for the SEL health of all the lives I was given the opportunity to impact.

My staff felt honored that I was willing to show the sometimes indecisiveness of my thoughts or the lack of courage in my decision-making. Since I was willing to share the areas of strengthening that I needed, my staff became more willing to share where they were deficient, whether I had witnessed it or not. In this way, the return on my investment of exposing my vulnerabilities was tenfold. Since I opened the door for staff to help me, they were more willing to let me help them.

While it may feel counterintuitive, a leader who is willing to take a leap of vulnerability is likely to be met with a supportive audience—one that knows they will be supported in return.

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You can book a keynote with Anthony Colannino to bring his expertise about instructional excellence and growth mindset to your school or district. You can also view our full list of thought leaders who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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