The Power of Vulnerability


Teaching - HeartThe title of this post pays homage to Brene Brown’s moving TED talk. Her insights and research on this subject matter spoke to my core as a teacher and human being. I have a sign on the wall of my classroom beside my desk that says ‘Teaching is a Work of Heart’. It had become an invisible part of my decor until a lovely sixth year recently wrote me a kind thank you card that alluded to this sign that he had been looking at and associating with me for the past five years that we have spent learning together. I will miss him and his classmates, they have engaged and etched a space in my heart. His card and Brown’s TED talk help me to realise that the restorative work that I am engaged in and advocating in schools is very much influenced by the intention of living ‘whole-heartedly’, of being vulnerable, authentic. It is along this path where we meet connection, where we find our true selves and see this in one another.

An essential part of living from our whole hearts involves allowing its light to shine on and embrace our fears. It involves a love, a vision that melts, not who we are but who we are not. Acknowledging and opening up to our shame offers the power of vulnerability that Brown alludes to. Recognising shame and how it may manifest itself is essential if we are to transform it into something else – growth, awareness, compassion, not only for others but for ourselves. Perhaps more importantly for our own selves because it is this, I believe, that navigates how we engage with our world and how we treat one another. A restorative process allows us to reflect and acknowledge something so that it can be changed, improved, so that it can evolve. The Compass of Shame illustrates

Compass of Shame

Compass of Shame

how people can demonstrate negative secondary behaviour if they do not find a way to deal with their shame in a healthy way.  Anger is a secondary emotion, it requires space and reflection to identify its roots and how it can be changed into something that serves us. Fear, perhaps of exposing or exploring its root, of being vulnerable, can be a blinding and driving force; fear of taking ownership over a situation which may present our inner critics with bountiful reasons to avoid another potential failure. So we, often unconsciously, “protect” ourselves with the Compass of Shame. The compass offered by restorative practice signposts a new direction that involves peace and cooperation; that offers our classrooms, our schools, and indeed our world a hope of a conscious now and perhaps a brighter tomorrow.

I understand that sharing in an authentic way can be very scary and intimidating at times. But surely the alternative of getting trapped in fear and anger cannot be easy. It is the restriction of the frustrating negative cycle that is hard and relentless, that tires our lovely spirit. Some teachers in my study expressed valid fears about exposing themselves emotionally by using affective statements[1]. This was especially challenging for teachers whose identity of a good teacher was attached to being or feeling the need to be authoritarian and in total control. The eight teachers in my study were invited to experiment with restorative practices and often bravely did so where the need was the strongest – with challenging individuals and classes. Group reflection of our Professional Learning Community (PLC) revealed that the reward of this interaction was often a process but a very worthy one.  Some teachers chose not to engage with this restorative language initially, needing the nudge of the success stories of others before experimenting, but even asking ourselves ‘How did I engage with that situation? Was I restorative? Was I punitive? Why might this be?’ offers a great insight. Teacher 5’s journal reveals this ‘I went nuclear, he responded similarly, I’d backed him into a corner.” Her honesty and reflection allows her to engage differently with this situation, to try to redefine her engagement with this young man in the future. What is of paramount importance, I feel, is for us to be crystal clear about the intention of our response so that we can then find an action/tone/support/reaction that may meet the needs of the situation and achieve our intention.

It takes courage to reflect, share and express our true selves. But this is where we find peace, this is where we find the solace of a “me too” or meaningful growth. Teacher 8, who was initially reluctant to use affective statements shares in our PLC, when reflecting on a restorative conference, “I realised that he felt humiliated by my actions. This wasn’t my intention so I changed the punishment and told him he didn’t have to apologise in front of everyone as that would add to the humiliation, that I never wanted him to feel this. It really worked; he acted like he was sorry in front of the others when we returned to class, totally different than before”. Teacher 8 was flexible in his response, he did not rest on an automatic punitive TO reaction (Wachtel and McCold, 2001). He was brave enough to ask, understand and share so he consciously achieved his intention – positive change. We see that reflection, authentic inquiry and openness are key.

Personally, I feel that we are always walking in either of two directions, towards love or fear. When I am looking for inner guidance about a situation I ask myself, “What would love do/say/think about this?” I find this often offers a benevolent solution that guides my actions for the best outcome for everyone. Love would be open, vulnerable, kind and authentic. I feel vulnerable writing this blog, sharing my spirituality in such an open way, and if I am to practice what I speak of, then I too need to choose vulnerability and share in an authentic way. The truth is that my spirituality is the inspiration behind my commitment to the restorative work that I engage in but the explicit practices are the compass.

One does not have to share my spiritual sentiments or inner dialogue to reap the same benefits and guidance from this compass. The simple set of proactive and reactive explicit practices that give RP its framework naturally guides us past fear towards a path of love. We just need to honour the process. Teacher 3 shares how the explicit nature of the process has helped her improve communication, “We were both expressing our needs in a positive calm manner. Knowing the right RP questions allowed me to respond in this way”. RP’s use of affective statements, fair process[2], FRESH[3] guidelines, restorative questions and the free expression of emotion [4]allow a process that builds understanding, that creates empathy. As human beings we have a need to be heard, to know that what we say matters. For our young people, especially those that live challenging lives, this need can manifest itself in a negative way, motivating destructive behaviour patterns. We, as teachers, have a wonderful opportunity to model emotional literacy skills for our young people so they can satisfy their need to be heard in a way that serves them and their environment, so they too know and do better. Teacher 5 shares the evolution of her relationship with her challenging students, “Those students X and Y, they don’t rule my day anymore. They come and talk to me, tell me stuff outside school. It feels good”. We have the privilege of making a difference and teaching our students ways to be in the world that will remain long after the facts that we have taught them fades from their minds. My favourite writer, Maya Angelou, says that children may not remember everything you teach them but they will always remember how you made them feel. I aspire for them to know who they are at their core, to remember their loveliness, to feel that they are competent, powerful and peaceful human beings.

I think if we are full of true internal power then we will not need to dominate our students, to seek any of theirs. We will reside within the WITH Box of the Social Discipline Window (Wachtel and McCold, 2001) instead of the TO Box that the punitiveSDW school system promotes. Although it may feel vulnerable to offer our students their power, we need to be willing to be explicit about it in order to avoid the power struggles that create tight reactive situations. It’s important to give them ownership over solving the problem, remind them of their power to affect the situation and how they are meeting it, to offer them healthy choices. We get to help our young people to realise their self-efficacy, to be positive agents in their own lives, and in turn, in our world.  Perhaps we only back them into a corner when we are seeking what Gary Zuzak (1989), author of  The Seat of the Soul, refers to as external power, when we feel fear.


It is clear, for me, that  when we engage in a power struggle we, even if appear to’ win’, in fact, always lose our power. We have engaged in a struggle that negates who we are at our core- loving and peaceful beings. This response is of course understandable at times, I have and no doubt will find myself locked into an unconscious battle in the future. It’s often a natural reactive response when we, as teachers, feel backed into a corner ourselves, vulnerable in front of all the observing eyes. It can be lonely at the top of the classroom and we are all doing the best we can based on our current level of consciousness, when we know better, we do better. Being reflective practitioners and engaging in restorative conversations offer us the potential to know and do better. It gives us our own power to respond to these situations differently. Students that reside at the top of Morrison’s Pyramid (2005) require intensive restorative responses. Sometimes teachers of Morrison'a pyramidour study reported that their attempt at RP did not ‘work’, reminding us that it is a process that requires time and indeed a paradigm shift. This may be a lengthy process but when we broaden our lens we see that RP can still offer success even if Student X’s behaviour remains unchanged. Teacher 4 says “When I’m restorative the others don’t jump on board with Student X” and Teacher 5 openly shares the merits with our PLC group, “It’s great for my mental health, I definitely feel less stressed using RP, I was going from zero to ten, their bad behaviour made me feel out of control”. RP offers us the breath to thoughtfully respond as opposed to react, it allows us to manage our internal responses rather than let the outer world dictate our inner landscape. It allows us to live from our hearts, our spirit. This is authentic power, when the personality serves the energy of the soul (Zuzak, 1989). The power that Glinda, the good witch of Oz, alludes to “it is ours all along” and the restorative practices may just be our Yellow Brick Road.


Morrison  (2005). Restorative justice in schools. In E. Elliott & R. M. Gordon (Eds.), New Directions in Restorative Justice (pp. 26–52). Cullompton, Devon: Willan Publishing.

Wachtel, T., & McCold, P. (2001). Restorative justice in everyday life. In H. Strang & J. Braithwaite (Eds.), Restorative Justice and Civil Society (pp. 114–129). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Zuzak, G. (1989) The Seat of the Soul. Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

[1] Affective statements are I statements that express an emotion/affect. The intention is to share in a way that promotes empathy and understanding. That reduces the potential for accusation and self-defense that often cements us into negative interactions and thought patterns.

[2] Fair Process involves engagement, explanation and expectation clarity.

[3] FRESH is an acronym for: Fair, Respectful, Engaging, Safe and Honest.

[4] The free expression of emotion (Costello and Costello, 2009) refers to a practitioner’s commitment to sharing how they feel and inviting others to do the same: to express themselves affectively (using emotions).


About mstowerp

I am a teacher and restorative practice practitioner, trainer and consultant. I am currently on career break but have been an active champion and coordinator of Restorative Practice (RP) in my school since 2010. Since that time I have become an accredited trainer and also completed a thesis in RP for my Masters in Education. This consisted of an action research project that involved working with teachers to initiate, implement and evaluate the use of RP in their classrooms. I am currently working part tim ein Maynooth and many Education Centres training teachers in RP. Contact me if you are interested in finding out information about training or consultancy. I am passionate about creating well-being and happiness in the work place; and particularly interested in re-culturing schools and cultivating a restorative paradigm shift. My intention is to use this forum to share the work we did as a community of teachers with others and to promote RP, well-being and community. Being involved with this work allows me to feel that the life that I am living is the same as the life that wants to live in me. I am grateful for this.
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