I ran across a blog post by Brené Brown earlier today. In the post she relates some of the kurfluffle around her comments to Oprah Winfrey about teachers and shame (original video now hard to find — its the last clip on this page). This all happened at the end of September, so I’m late to the party, but I had a few thoughts about what happened here . To my mind, the biggest place where Brown goes wrong is when she says that shame is a classroom management tool used in schools. By calling shame a tool, she implied that the use of shame was conscious, and since her whole thing is talking about how bad shame is, that’s a pretty damning way to call teachers out as being bad for kids. That turned her comments into a public shaming of teachers. Brown didn’t intend to shame teachers, but that’s the sneaky way shame works — it’s everywhere, and it is hard to avoid.
Shame is certainly present in every classroom — it is a nearly ubiquitous emotion, so it happens in classrooms like it happens everywhere. For the moment, let’s try to avoid shaming the emotion of shame — shame and the threat of shame are intertwined with nearly every connection we have with other people. That’s not good or bad, it just is. When our relationships are working, we are able to use subtle clues about shame in ourselves and others to figure out how to navigate the relationships without alienating ourselves or other people. But an excessive weight of shame, or shame that calcifies in certain areas can break our relationships, causing disconnection and isolation. In classrooms, both students and teachers can feel shame, and that shame is a signal to us that our relationships are either fractured, or in danger of being fractured. Teachers feel it when they are disrespected by parents, administrators, and other teachers. Students feel it when they understand that they aren’t worthy of connection with classmates, teachers, and specialist because they aren’t good enough. We have to watch for signs of shame in other people, and use it as a sign of relationship danger. Relationships can be repaired and shame can be healed.
Teachers care about kids, that’s why they become teachers. They work hard every day to help kids succeed. They also face a job that is so difficult, so painful, so demanding of every resource they have. They do it without enough pay, and with a whole world watching to see where they are going to screw up first. In other words, teachers do their jobs in an environment that is a shame pressure cooker. When people are in that kind of pressure cooker, they will push their shame onto other people, and it is easiest to push shame onto weaker people. I do it as a teacher to my students, and I do it as a parent to my kids. I don’t do it because I’m a bad person, or because I am sitting around cackling and thinking up ways to torture students and children. I do it because I am human, and fallible, and, because, as Brown said in her mea culpa post “learning is vulnerable and classrooms are tender places.” We do need to raise awareness of the presence of shame in classrooms because awareness is really one of the only ways to combat shame. But we have to raise that awareness gently and carefully because any time we start to really see how shame operates in our lives it is easy to become overwhelmed.
I do think there are some institutional practices that increase students vulnerability to shame in schools. Particularly, I am thinking about public accountability in classrooms. In elementary math classes, you will sometimes find charts of times tables and other math facts, where you can see how each student is doing on proving their mastery. Short timed tests like “mad minute” are used in most elementary classrooms, and those are also a form of public accountability since all the students know who finishes on time and who doesn’t because they can look around and see everyone, including those kids that inevitably shouted out as soon as they were finished, before the timer rang, stopping the kid who still had half a page of problems left. Public accountability charts are also used for behavior management and in other subjects. For some kids, this is highly motivating. Students want to do well and the competitive spin of public results help spur them to work. But for other students, being at the bottom (or even in the middle) week after week is demoralizing and shaming. I think that in order to support all students, we need to have students set goals and chart their progress, but that this should be private. This won’t provide the competition that helps some students focus, but it will avoid the discouragement and feelings of shame and stupidity that other students experience.
We can’t change the fact that in every classroom, the students know where they stand in academic rankings. All of the students know who is at the highest reading level and who is still struggling to read beginning books. They all know who finishes the math assignments before everyone else and who never finishes. We humans are constantly comparing ourselves to others, and figuring out where and how we rank. But when those rankings are publicly displayed, their importance is reinforced, even if the teacher is telling the students verbally that effort and progress are the most important things. We need to put the rankings away and to consistently remind students that they need to look to themselves to measure progress. They need to be better able to handle fractions at the end of the unit than they were at the beginning. They don’t need to be better than another student, they need to be better than they used to be. We also need to talk to students about how we handle that terrible feeling we have when we realize that we aren’t doing as well at something as we wish we were. We need to talk with our kids about how to manage the pain when we find out we sang the wrong note, or messed up all the problems, or our drawing wasn’t selected for the prize, or we realize that our friends are all reading at a higher grade level than we are. If we avoid emphasizing rankings and do some explicit teaching around how to handle the emotions that arise when we fail or don’t do as well as we would like, then we give students the tools to navigate pressure and criticism without falling into a pit of shame. Most teachers already do a lot of work to combat shame, but connecting the dots on the impact and mechanisms of shame can help teachers better see what they are doing and how to do it effectively.