[WHAT] The Messiness of Success: Using Self—Disclosure to Create Classroom Connection
Updated: Mar 19
I decided to be brave today and then became witness to others’ bravery. This one‘s for you, Brene Brown!
As a professor, I don’t tend to talk much about my own story because I believe that the students should be the focus- the course is for their professional development, after all.
But I kept coming back to the thought while preparing for my lecture, how powerful it would have been when I was a student sitting uncomfortably in my classes trying not to be “found out”, willing myself to blend into the crowd as I walked from my car straight to my seat in the back of class, for the 8 years it took me to graduate, if a professor had let me in a little. If they had allowed me to see them, to feel welcome, to be at ease, and shared their stories of imperfection.
Back then the imposter voice in my brain told me I didn’t belong, that the students who had family support (financial, emotional, etc.) were better than me, and I, a struggling self-supporting commuter/working student was less than.
My blending-in strategy involved an armoring up before class against comments like “Well, you don’t seem that old,” and “You work? I wish I had time to work!” and “The classes you need conflict with your work schedule. You should pick a new major. Next!”
While I worked on deflecting the commentary, I worked on covering up the shame I endured about my background. On the surface, I probably appeared like the “traditional” white middle class college girl. I was friendly and had nice clothes and good grades. I carried around a chip on my shoulder and what felt like a big secret: I wasn’t like them.
No one was to find out that while I was in college my little brother went straight from high school graduation to a combat deployment, my older sister got her GED and worked a grueling 60-hour a week restaurant job, and my little sister went into foster care.
On the outside, I was fighting to look normal. On the inside, I was fighting to climb out of my circumstance.
Back then, I thought professors were magical, untouchable creatures, and mistakenly believed that respecting them meant leaving them alone and not bothering them with my existence.
So today, I decided to show up as myself. I disclosed to a room of 22 college students that I’m a first generation college grad, who took 8 years working really terrible jobs to graduate, had no idea how my degree applied to any sort of career, moved to California sight unseen, discovered a graduate program, got in, fast forward a few years, and now here I am, the teacher.
And within the last year, I have spent a number of nights in the hospital with my son after the diagnoses of epilepsy and Doose syndrome changed our lives in an instant, had a baby, left my job, and got recruited to work at a new really cool place that allows me more time with my kids. Complete with a robot coworker that I get such a kick out of when she zooms by my desk to catch a meeting in the conference room (She is operated by a person telecommuting. But enough about her).
I put the image above up on the screen, pointing to the square on the right, full of messy scribbles.
Contrary to what our culture tells us, this is a more accurate description of life, I concluded. It’s hard. Like...really, unbelievably, overwhelmingly hard. But you know what, the image on the left is pretty boring, and worse: not reflective of the world of work any more. So, good news for us who have rumbled with struggle. We know how to pivot. We invented Agile before it was a “thing”.
What happened next is why I love my job. I asked them to take a moment to reflect on the image and chat in pairs what about what came to mind. The room erupts with conversation. I wait until I hear the inevitable lull and then ask for volunteers to share.
A brief pause.
Then a simple and so brave:
“This looks a lot like my own experience. I started in one major as a student athlete and after getting hurt too many times had to leave my sport. So, here I am studying how to help others who get injured.”
You have definitely spent some time in that scribbly area right around here, I said, pointing.
“Yep,” he nodded. And it was as if I could see something click together in his mind.
Meaning-making in real time.
“Congratulations. You just wrote the thesis of your personal statement,” I told him.
And then another hand rose, and a student shared her story about not belonging at another institution and changing midway to come to a new school.
And, “My brother has epilepsy and has been all over in hospitals. And he’s been seizure free for 8 years. It’s what I wrote my college essays about.”
I told them that if they got anything out of today, it was this lesson: Success doesn’t look like perfection. In fact, it looks more like mental health counseling, a fierce conviction, and the confidence that you can reinvent yourself as many times over as you want. And it turns out, your career will benefit from this ability to experiment, get feedback, pivot, and repeat.
We don’t have to know what’s ahead. I never would have told you when I was 19 that I wanted to be a college professor. I never would have allowed myself to dream that big. But life is magical that way. One chance event leads to the next and the next, and then suddenly the moment can strike: Wow. Here I am. The one in front of the class leading the way.