It was the year 2017 when I (Aditi) happened to visit an Apni Shala classroom, we were having a session on how we were feeling that morning. It was the first time in my life that I witnessed students from Grade 5 sharing their exact feelings and naming their emotions. Sima*, a student, shared that she was feeling sad, the facilitator curiously asked if she is comfortable sharing why she was feeling sad to which the student privately shared something with the facilitator. We moved on from our emotional check-in to the day’s curriculum which was on bullying.
After a series of activities, during one of the debriefs the facilitator shared her own story where she was teased and bullied due to her height. Slowly the students opened up and started sharing their stories, Sima also shared that she was being teased by her friends for putting on braces and that she was scared to share the story at the beginning of the session but now as Didi also opened up about herself she felt its okay to share her reasons with her classmates.
The incident stayed with me as I realized how powerful and critical it is when the facilitator shows their vulnerability to the class thereby making ways for creating more inclusive and safe classrooms.
We have always believed that Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is from self to others, so to be able to understand, and express our own vulnerabilities and real-life experiences make it authentic for me and the students to implement and understand the themes or SEL topics.
How do stories support deep discussions on different themes?
Body Image is one of our Social Emotional Learning themes where we explore our self-perception of our body and how that impacts our sense of self and confidence. This module is done by Grade 8 who are students aged between 13-14 years, we have often observed in our classroom that initially, it might bring a lot of blame, shame and awkwardness to openly talk about our body, how we look and how we and others perceive us. But in our journey, we have seen very positive results as soon as the facilitator authentically shares their story and thoughts about their own body. Recalling one of the conversations of my co-facilitator’s session, where a human figure was drawn and the students were asked to share things that they like about their body and unhealthy remarks others have made about them. While there was an option given that they will not be asked to share this with the full class if not comfortable I noticed that they individually found it difficult to reflect. Observing this pattern the facilitator shared his story of how he loves the way his hands are and he is thankful for them and also how due to his dark skin colour he was teased and called mean names by his friends.
This opened up ideas, and possibilities for the class and the students felt confident to write about themselves too.
In a Grade 6 class, while discussing healthy and unhealthy relationship practices, Aftab* thanked his facilitator and shared, “Thank you for naming that not being unable to express by saying something in a relationship is not a problem, I can explore other ways to express my emotions too.” While it is sometimes considered to be the way of expressing emotions by saying this, it meant comforting for Aftab to know that in a room full of 25 students he is not the only one who finds it difficult to express himself by saying and that’s okay.
Pandolpho ( 2018), who is an educator and researcher, writes “Studies on thousands of students show that learners who are better socially connected to their teachers and classmates are significantly more engaged and achieve better than less well-connected peers.”
Hence, when we give ourselves permission to share our stories, be vulnerable and acknowledge our imperfections, our students receive the message that the facilitator is more like them than they could imagine. It reassures them that the journey does not always look rosy, and that we can give ourselves permission to learn from our mistakes and accept things the way they are.
Responsibility as facilitators of engaging safely with the classroom
As facilitators, we are responsible for reflecting on the stories we decide to share in the classroom. As a practice, we often try to think of ourselves as a student listening to the same story and how we would perceive it. Will this story create more space for sharing and vulnerability? What message does the story give out to the students about the facilitator? Stories do add a personal touch to the topic being discussed but it also allows the students to know their facilitator more closely.
Our stories reflect how we managed to get through some of the most important phases of our life. Once during a session on Body Image with Grade 8, I (Purvi) shared how long my journey was of accepting my skin tone or the way I look. It did not happen overnight. Through the discussion, we could come to the conclusion that it is a long process and the facilitator does not expect the students to immediately accept themselves for who they are. So choosing a story that would, in a way, be reassuring for the students was what I understood to be my responsibility as a facilitator.
I (Purvi) recall my first experience of sharing my personal story of gender discrimination with my students. I was hesitant to share at first, for a lot of reasons. Some of the thoughts that came up were; “ How will my students perceive me?”, “Will their outlook change?”, “ What if I end up looking too vulnerable or if my eyes get watery while sharing?”. It was an 8th-grade classroom and I did end up crying while I shared how my parents were shamed for having three daughters. However, to my surprise, most girls hugged me after that session and could not stop sharing their own experiences. One of the male students came up to me and said, “ Didi, do not worry, you will always have a younger brother.” This indeed became an example of how effective stories can be to find common connections and build positive relationships in the classroom.
Managing triggers while sharing our stories
Sharing personal stories requires us to visit some uncomfortable memories of the past or even things that might trouble us in the present. Therefore, preparing for any kind of trigger becomes an important part of the process. At one of the training sessions on mindfulness at Apni Shala, I heard some advice that has stayed with me and has helped me navigate through difficult situations in the classroom. It talked about how our mind likes to create stories all the time, both negative and positive, and these might not always be true. The facilitator explained how we have developed the habit of being trapped in these stories which are sometimes far from reality.
With this awareness, the triggers that could come with the stories from our personal journeys have reduced to a great extent, since it is our enlarged understanding of the situations.
Another effective tool is to name all the possible triggers before the session and acknowledge their presence. We, at Apni Shala, go through weekly personal and professional development with our curriculum team to explore our journeys and identify and manage personal triggers before we enter the classroom. This gives us the time and space to be able to name our emotions and manage our responses.
It also helps to let the students know that what you are about to share with them is sensitive and brings out a lot of emotions and in turn asks for their support and understanding. This enhances trust in the facilitator and the space being created. While doing this, we must remember that in the context of the facilitator-student relationship, our healing is our responsibility, not our students. To read more, you may read our colleague, Shahbaan Shah’s article here.
Sharing our stories conveys a sense of trust. It shows our students that we believe they’re able to hold our truths and invites them to share their own. Selecting our personal anecdotes with intention can help build students’ social and emotional competencies. We model resilience and self-efficacy through our stories. In our journey as facilitators, it has helped us to build deeper connections and relationships with our students.
Aditi Ganguly works with Apni Shala as the Fundraising and Partnerships Lead. In her role, she leads non-government partnerships for various functions at Apni Shala and supports fundraising initiatives. Aditi holds a Master in Social Entrepreneurship from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).
Purvi Prajapati is a fellow at Apni Shala. She facilitates SEL sessions in four MGCM partner schools. She has done her Bachelors in International Relations and Psychology from Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, Pune.
* students’ names changed to maintain privacy.