Written By: Hans Appel
A couple weeks ago, I shared a powerful spoken word rap created, written, and performed by an award winning culture student named Taya titled: We Weren’t Made For This.” It was extraordinarily powerful, moving, and raw. It’s exactly the type of authentic, vulnerable student created content I believe makes the world a better place.
Her powerful voice demonstrates a resilience that’s inspiring! Many viewers have been particularly influenced by her poetic vulnerable language used to describe bravely surviving sexual trauma.
Indeed, in my opinion, sexual abuse is the most horrifyingly and violating act that can happen to a human being. As a counselor of 20 years, I’ve lost track of how many stories of abuse I’ve been weighted with. And believe me, experience does NOT make this part of the job--any easier. I’ve heard personal accounts of sex traficing, parents who prostitued their own child, and tales of gang rap. I’ve had students who violated other students and an unending supply of famila perpetrators. I’ve dealt with adults who fail to believe their own child’s terrifying narrative and testified about circumstances that would make even the most seasoned therapist lose faith in humanity. Still, one story has impacted me more than any other. It happened during my 2nd year on the job and has changed the way I view education and life…
Let’s call her Tiffany. Tiffany came in periodically to visit and say hi. She was a small 6th grade girl filled with two parts anxiety and 1 part people pleaser. Although she spoke with a quiet soft voice, when she talked she usually had strong thoughts behind her verbiage. Tiffany was a bright student, who’s introverted personality assisted her transition into middle school as she dove head first into earning straight A’s.
For a couple weeks, Tiffany had been complaining about her upcoming summer break. As was explained to me, her family would be heading back east to spend time with extended family for a couple weeks. Additionally, Tiffany would be staying on, an extra week to spend time with her grandparents alone, as Tiffany’s mom and dad flew back to Washington. While she was frustrated at having to give up nearly 3 weeks of her summer away from home, she was particularly focused on the week that she would be on her own with her grandparents.
After some time, one morning Tiffany finally revealed to me that she had been sexually abused by her grandfather on a previous family vacation and that she couldn’t bare the thought of spending an entire week, without mom/dad with her grandfather. Tiffany was a mix of shame, fear, guilt, depression, rage, and anxiety. And her nightmares and self hatred had reached a level that she finally had to speak up. Her bravery to share her painful truth led to a normal series of outreach: police, child protective services, sexual assault response center, and parents were all contacted to play their role in supporting this broken soul.
While we waited for detectives to arrive at school, I sat with Tiffany, her mom, and dad. They hugged their daughter as she shared a few minor details. Dad was awesome. He said everything you’d want to hear if you’d just revealed your most intimate life’s shame ridden secret. Mom was quiet but her love for her daughter shown through as she squeezed her daughter tight and repeatedly told her: I love you...I’m so sorry…
As our wait for first responders drug on, and Tiffany’s words continued to fill the air, the mood began to change rather dramatically. Her mom began to cry gently at first and then her tears began to pick up stem toward an impactful sob. As a young counselor, her tears didn’t register to me and seemed on par with any other heartbroken parent, who's suddenly found themselves learning that her own father had been hurting her baby girl. But Tiffany’s dad picked up on the energy change quickly and focused all of his attention on his wife telling her it was going to be ok, Tiffany would be safe, etc.
His words and attempt to console his wife didn’t work and she seemed more and more distraught as she wept. At this point, both Tiffany and dad stared directly at mom trying to comfort her. As you can imagine, the scene of this young child victim now consoling mom was a bit unusual. A piece of me wondered how her mom’s meltdown was impacting Tiffany. After several attempts by both Tiffany and her father to soothe mom’s outburst, mom slowly looked up across the room at me and began with two words:
“Me Too………………...He...did...the same thing………to me, when I was her age.”
Typing that last sentence, gives me chills and emotionally puts me smack dab in the middle of one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned about vulnerability. Long before Brene Brown turned vulnerability into society’s newest leadership buzzword, I was given an up close look at bravery: first daughter then mother.
Tiffany’s mom, who was in her mid 30’s had literally never told a single person about her own painful years of sexual abuse from her own father. In a mix of denial and blame for herself, she had unintentionally put dangerous blinders on to subjecting her own daughter to the same monster that she experienced as a child. Working with the family over the next few months and learning more about the intersecting circles of abuse, experienced trauma experts won’t be surprised to learn that mom and Tiffany were NOT grandpa’s only family victims. They were just the ones who were brave enough to speak first.
[Tiffany and her family have since gone on to become successful community leaders that make the world a more positive place]
I think about how long that abuse would have gone on if Tiffany wouldn’t have come forward? How many other lives would have been ruined? If someone would have shared the horror happening in that home, would Tiffany never have been in harm's way? Tiffany and mom's vulnerability that day began the healing process and ultimately prevented future pain for others.
Whether we’re a parent, a teacher, or leader of some other sort...
*Vulnerability is strength.
*Vulnerability connects us to others.
*Vulnerability inspires others to be brave.
*Vulnerability encourages resilience.
**Vulnerability empowers us to put people first.
Award Winning Cultures create conditions that encourage vulnerable leadership
At a recent educational conference I was blown away by the number of educators willing to demonstrate vulnerability. [Here’s a recap of my #TeachBetter reflections.]
How can WE ALL lead with vulnerability? Being vulnerable isn’t just about sharing personal stories of disclosure. Sometimes educators model vulnerability in other ways.
Following the recent Teach Better Conference, I’m currently reading 2 books at the same time. One of which was written by the conference creators [Chad Ostrowski, Tiffany Ott, Rae Hughart, and Jeff Gargas] simply called: “Teach Better” published by Dave Burgess Consulting. I’m loving the Teach Better Team’s book and highly recommend it to anyone with a growth mindset who’s interested in getting better at whatever educational path you're particularly passionate about. It’s a perfect blend of practical educational strategies that are rooted in heartfelt vulnerable stories. Here's a passage that’s stuck with me:
“There is an important truth in education that is often overlooked: We do not teach content. We do not teach history of the American Revolution or the mechanics of bone and muscle. We do not teach grammar or how to add fractions. WE TEACH KIDS”
While there are dozens of poignant quotes and powerful takeaways from the book, this quote stuck with me this week as I reflected upon the need to show bravery through vulnerability while putting kids first--NOT CONTENT.
With all the district, state, and political pressure to focus on content exclusively, educators sometimes lose their way in focusing on what’s most important: The Whole Child. And thinking about all the brave young leaders (I.E Taya, Tiffany etc.) and educational risk takers like the Teach Better family that overcome difficult circumstances to find joy realigns me to examine how educators can model vulnerability while pushing back on educational norms.
Maybe being vulnerable means…
**Choosing MASTERY over quantity of content covered
**Building in time for peer to peer CONNECTIONS
**Valuing RELATIONSHIPS rather than performance
**Sacrificing systems in favor of STUDENTS
**Celebrating KINDNESS instead of achievement
**SUPPORTING rather than criticizing educational risk taking
**Opting for SELF CARE over stakeholders
**Measuring JOY through passion projects
**Amplifying STUDENT VOICE as a means to TEACHBETTER
This week, I’m inspired by students like Tiffany, Taya, and countless others to challenge myself to push against the status quo, safety and comfort of simply doing...my...job--to become more present, authentic, and real.
How might modeling vulnerable leadership empower our students to become their most authentic self while pursuing their life’s WHY?
Do YOU ever wonder what the world might look like, if educators followed the brave vulnerable leadership of some of our most resilient students: ME TOO!
About the Author
Hans Appel has worked as a counselor in the Richland School District for the past 19 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He’s passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness. In 2018, EMS was awarded the ASCD Whole Child Award for the State of Washington and the Global “Class Act Award” for creating a culture of excellence through kindness, service, and empathy. Additionally, the were selected as a finalist in the 2019 PBIS Film Festival and took top prize in the Community, Parents, and Staff category.
Award Winning Culture was created by Hans and Jennifer Appel with the sole purpose of creating an educational mindset of Positive INTENTIONALITY and ACTION; with a daily mantra to make our sphere of influence stronger through Character, Excellence, and Community. Part of AWC's mission is to highlight outstanding educators, companies, and resources that support an Award Winning Culture. Both Jennifer and Hans work at Enterprise Middle School aka Wildcat Nation. Wildcat Nation received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness.