Classroom poster with students names and mastered math facts

Shame in classrooms

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.

Classroom poster with students names and mastered math facts

Here not only is your math prowess public, but it’s linked to ice cream

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.

Disappointment and Hiding in the Classroom

I’ve been noticing lately my disappointment in students. I don’t want to feel disappointed in students. Honestly, I don’t want to feel disappointed in anyone. Who does? But you might argue that we have certain expectations for how the people around us will act, and that people don’t always meet those expectations. When they don’t, I am justified in feeling disappointed, at least provided that my expectations were reasonable. The trouble is that  disappointment is counterproductive, and for me it is part of an overall tendency I have to disconnect with people.

Let me look at this a little closer. I have certain expectations for my students. I set those out for the students by giving them specific assignments (“turn this worksheet in on Monday” or “write a blog post about your problem-solving process”), and I lay them out on the course syllabus by telling students to come to class, check their email regularly, participate, and so forth. There are also a collection of expectations that go unspoken by me. I expect that students will be thinking about what they need to do to prepare for upcoming exams, even if I don’t give them explicit assignments. I expect that students will ask for help and support when they don’t understand something after class. I expect that students will monitor what they do and don’t understand. I expect that students will give me their best work, and won’t piece together something at the last minute. I often say things which imply these expectations, but I’m not always explicit about them. Also notice that not all of these expectations are realistic.

If a student doesn’t meet these expectations, I get cranky. In between classes, if I am expecting work and participation from students that I don’t see, I start to worry, and to run my “disappointment tape.” Typically it involves me getting frustrated and making up a lot of things that I imagine to be happening with the students. I imagine them as uninterested in the course, not dedicated, not hard-working, wanting to get away with not doing work, not caring about thinking deeply, not caring about interacting with me or other students. Yes, there’s some really ugly stuff hiding in there. The thing is that I don’t know that any of that is really happening. Mostly, I think what is happening with me is that I want this connection with students, and most of what I have to connect with is their work. When the work isn’t there, I feel rejected. I imagine the students pulling away from me, and I rush to pull away from them first, by getting “disappointed” in them. Most of the time, I can get back my connection with the students simply by being around them — it is the time in between classes that provides a space for these feelings to grow.

Students don’t always do what we teachers what them to do. In fact, people in general don’t always do what other people what them to do. So we get anxious about our relationships and our standing with other people. In school, this means teachers get frustrated with and disappointed in students. What do students do? Students learn to hide from the disappointment of teachers. They hide and they lie so they can save themselves from the consequences of expectations unmet. Students hide so that they’re grades aren’t in jeopardy and they hide so that they can maintain positive relationships with the powerful people that are important to them. Students get into a habit of hiding, so that it seems as natural as breathing. I remember it well from the last time I was a student — doing work I wasn’t proud of and hoping it would slip by without notice, making up excuses for doing work late or stretching excuses that were technically true but not really accurate, trying to look good in order to get away with things. As a teacher, I know that students are doing these things, but I ignore it, acting as if students are going to meet all of my expectations, and then getting disappointed when they don’t. Because I am required to assign grades to students, I maintain and perpetuate the fiction that grades mean something objective, when the reality is that they’re just a somewhat arbitrary record of how well a student met my somewhat arbitrary standards about a somewhat arbitrary collection of activities and topics.

What if I stopped doing this? It’s hard to imagine. Could I stop having expectations of students? What would happen to me and to the students if I did? What if I kept having my expectations, but was more honest about the fact that I know students won’t always meet them? What’s so bad about the students not meeting them anyways? Could I keep the expectations, but let go of the disappointment, simply connecting with students about what happened and deciding what to do next? Could I let my students be honest with me about the unrealistic nature of my expectations and with what really happens for them in a class? Could I let students formulate their own expectations, help them to make those expectations realistic, and then help them to live up to those expectations? Could I create a classroom environment in which I helped my students evaluate themselves? Wouldn’t this cause the very foundation of objective and rational subjects like math and science crumble because students would start writing expressive poetry about how math makes them feel and giving themselves an A++ on every assignment?

 

Emotional Cycle of Teaching

I’m now in the second week of classes, and today I noticed how much my emotions have been fluctuating over the last week. I’ve experienced excitement, tension, anxiety/worry, happiness, connection, and isolation. For me, what primarily drives these emotions is how connected I feel and how exposed I feel. As I gear up for a class, I think about what I want to do and what the students might want and my anxiety and excitement both go up. I want the class to go well, and I manage the anxiety around that by preparing. Sometimes my preparation is great, and sometimes I over-prepare, repeatedly messing with my plans and making them more elaborate or complicated than they need to be. Essentially, the anxiety is about exposure and vulnerability. Teaching leaves you very vulnerable and we all deal with that vulnerability in different ways. The more I can just be OK with the vulnerability, the better things tend to go because when I do that I leave plenty of room for the students. When I get to tense and over-prepare, I tend to shut the students out, trying to control everything about the class. There’s a sweet spot to preparation, where I feel safe enough, but let myself be vulnerable enough to the students to make real connections. It’s often a hard spot for me to reach!

During class, my emotions all depend on what I get back from the students. If I’m getting a lot back from the students, I feel connected and less exposed, so I relax and take more risks. When I get less back from students, I talk more and feel more exposed and anxious. I want to focus this semester on watching the students more, no matter my mood, setting aside whatever anxiety I feel to really see what they are doing. It’s harder than it sounds, at least for me.

After a class, I tend to get a dip where I worry about both my performance and the students performance. What did they get out of the class? Are we moving in the right direction? Here I find that minute responses can help, because at least I have information from students and for me data is often an antidote to anxiety and that feeling of exposure. Even better is real conversations with students directly after class, and I want to make more of those happen. Checking in with students after class can lead to a great dialogue and a chance to offer support. I also feel relief after teaching — another class is over and I don’t have to start that cycle planning, execution, and evaluation for another couple of days.

Why Shame? Why Mathematics?

Shame is an painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die. Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection. Scheff and Retzinger make a case that shame is the “dominant emotion in social interactions,” but note that this shame is often unacknowledged and unclaimed.1 They note that, “Since one’s relationships and emotions don’t show up on a resume’, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. But shame and relationships don’t disappear, they just assume hidden and disguised forms.” 2

Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, rules, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, both because mathematics requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. As Tamara Bibby says in her paper on shame in mathematics, “It is important to be seen to be able to do/perform mathematics, i.e. ‘do it’ right quickly and efficiently—preferably mentally or with a neat paper and pencil algorithm with as little mark making as possible and with an exact answer.”3

Mathematics is seen as an objective judge, and this aspect of judgment may contribute to the experience of shame. Unlike other subjects, in mathematics there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation through different lenses. In English, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. School mathematics also generally requires the student to make a permanent record of their answers as well as the work behind those answers, both of which can make the student vulnerable to judgment.

It is clear why anxiety, panic, and fear were first identified as a barrier to doing mathematics. Many people doing mathematics feel a crippling panic as they sit down to do math. Laurie Buxton separates this anxiety into what she calls “mind chaos” and what she says is more common in math class, a “paralysis” of the mind.4 Fear is the presenting emotion, but shame is the core emotion since the fear is that “through an unwitting self-disclosure, you will allow someone to see your ineptitude and so open yourself to ridicule.”5.

Many people feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and feelings. In mathematics classrooms, the discourse is generally out of the control of the student. In everyday conversation, students can manage their own self-disclosure and are likely to be engaged with a supportive other who will acknowledge the separate reality of the speaker. But in a mathematics classroom, the it may be impossible to keep some aspects of work private, and the discussions are around things that are right or wrong with no room for management or hiding.

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Calculus

My classes started last week. This semester I have only two, which is good because I also have a sabbatical application, a promotion application, and contract renewal this year, along with a large responsibility in committee work. I’m teaching calculus and abstract algebra, both of which are both fun and challenging classes to teach. This semester my calculus class is the largest yet for my institution, which in itself really rocks. But I was unable to find a course assistant, so I’m managing all the work on my own. Thus I’ve tried to organize the heck out of it. I’m having students report on their own work each week and check their own solutions. I’m having them do more work in class that ever, and actually just more work than ever. And I haven’t even given them a textbook. Me and textbooks just don’t get along. I am never satisfied with the textbook for any class, and as a result I generally stop using them by midterms. So I decided to give it up. I’m having the students keep notebooks that are comprehensive and well organized, in part to make up for the lack of textbook. I’m also giving them a weekly handout that describes just what I expect them to know from each week, tied to the course objectives, which I have spelled out in detail, and will expect them to report on their progress toward twice this semester. Too ambitious as always! I’m also having them do weekly “readings” that are sometimes overviews of topics, sometimes “how to” pieces, and sometimes videos of either stripe.

So far the class is great! The energy is really good, and most of the students are talking to each other and participating in discussions. The class energy feels great. For homework I had them work on the “bottle calibration” problem, a favorite of mine since Robin Gottlieb first showed it to me. We had a wonderful discussion and debate in which some people were wrong, but everyone seemed to still feel good about what was happening. That’s one of my favorite kinds of moments to create in class. I’ve been peppering a lot of my class talk and individual conversations with comments about how its great when people disagree, are confused, or don’t know how to do something because that’s the only way we learn. I might give them some reading later in the semester on growth mindsets.

I’m having them ask questions online each week as part of a reading response and class response, and I got a great collection of questions from them and a good sense of their comfort levels — I have a lot feeling comfortable in class but with some nervousness about the material. I think that’s a great place to start and can set us up well for getting that “flow” state. A couple of students have said positive things about the class already. And in my feel-good moment of the week, and probably of the semester, a student of mine from Math, Art, and Design last semester reminded me today that one of the first things she ever said to me was, “You can’t make me like math.” Then she said that it turns out that she does like math now! That feels good, but it also feels even better that I can see her realizing that really does have the power to do math that she thought she was powerless against before. Not everyone can flip themselves around like she has, and it is inspiring to me when it happens. Mind you, I think I have been a good teacher for her, but that shift, it was all her being ferocious and refusing to let go of things she doesn’t understand!

 

Shame, Anxiety, and Mathematics

It is taken as common knowledge that many people hate mathematics, that it is a difficult subject in school, and that not everyone has an aptitude for math (Sam & Ernest, 2000). People’s difficulties with mathematics often get blamed on what educators and researchers call mathematics anxiety, the fear of doing mathematics. The term “mathematics anxiety” first appeared in the literature in the early 1970s (Suinn et. al., 1972; Nash, 1970), and was popularized by Sheila Tobias and others working in the late 1970s to address mathematics anxiety, particularly in women (Tobias, 1993). The frame of mathematics anxiety has problems, however. When an experience or set of emotions is classified as a psychological disorder, the experience and the response are pathologized. The reality may be that what is termed “anxiety” is a normal and reasonable response to mathematics education.  Additionally, anxiety is an individual problem, but we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States (Ginsberg et. al., 2005), so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture (Lave, 1988; Apple, 1990).
In addition to anxiety, many other emotions play a role in math avoidance and negative mathematical identities, and these emotions are linked to learning difficulties (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007; Lyons & Beilock, 2011). Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that shame is a primary emotion that negatively impacts mathematical identity, and that it is shame that gives rise to anxiety about, avoidance of, and disinterest in mathematics (Bibby, 2002; Ingleton & O’Regan, 2002; McGregor, 2005).
Shame is an intensely painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die (Lewis, 1993).  Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being (Bibby, 2002) and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection (Hartling et. al., 2000). Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner.
Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, procedures, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, since mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability (Sam & Ernest, 2000).
Shame can render a person passive and helpless (Miller, 1993) which impacts his ability to learn and to teach. To be able to effectively do mathematics, a person needs to perceive of himself as powerful, which means that he must be free of shame. People have a tendency to be both unaware of shame (Lewis, 1971) and to “catch” the shame of others, feeling ashamed of their shame (Scheff, 1988). The collective shame that our society holds about mathematics impacts all of us, and pressure for change gets transmitted to politicians, school districts, teachers, and finally to students, as teachers and parents respond to the pressure and shame by hiding difficulties, avoiding problematic encounters with mathematics, or even unconsciously shaming students as they struggle with math.

There are many suggestions for how we might solve our “math problem” in the United States, and many of those suggestions have great potential. However, teachers and students cannot make effective use of inspired methods of teaching and learning without attending to affective and relational issues, and this includes shame. People have many responses to shame, from pushing for greater competence to secure social acceptance, to adopting being “bad at math” a part of their identity that may be accepted by others, to withdrawing and avoiding math, to anger at self or others, to manipulations that paint the self in a better light (Bibby, 2002; Brown, 2007). Many of these responses are disempowering and result in isolation (Hartling et. al., 2000) and failure to achieve academic goals (Turner et. al., 2002).
If people face their shame while staying vulnerable and authentic, they can reclaim power and heal (Brown, 2007; Hartling et. al., 2000). Math teachers deal daily with students who cannot handle failure, because failure is a trigger for shame (Brown, 2007; Turner et. al., 2002). It is crucial to publically identify shame as a source of disconnection and difficulty (Hartling et. al., 2000), and once shame and its triggers are identified, alternate methods of responding to those triggers can be developed. To create change on a broad scale, we need to get people collectively address shame and mathematical power, to listen deeply to those who have been disempowered by mathematics, and to transform the shame held by parents, teachers, and school administrators, since those groups have so much influence on young people.

* I have written previously about most of these ideas, but the version above is more succinct and better (although not comprehensively) referenced. I’m going to be working up a bibliography to share as part of a paper I am currently writing. References below the cut.

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My mission in life

My mission in life is to help adults, students, and teachers to develop their mathematical voices and power. In my research, I am currently focusing on developing a theory of the way shame disrupts mathematics learning and impacts mathematical identity, and on methods of developing powerful responses to shame triggers. In the classroom, I am focused on examining the role of relationships and narratives in my teaching and student learning.

It has been about a year and a half since issues in my own classes started me thinking about the role of shame in mathematics difficulties. Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner. My current work includes finishing some qualitative analysis of mathematical memories of adults, examining common story narratives including evidence of the experiences of shame. This academic year I am also working on two relevant research projects, the first a collaborative project that takes a grounded-theory approach to the effect of subject-based autobiography assignments on classroom environment and student development, and the second an analysis of a method of mid-term course evaluation that I have developed over the past several semesters, particularly looking at how the evaluation impacts relationships in the classroom, students’ perceptions of power in the classroom, and my perceptions of the class as the instructor.

I am in the process of developing a class for Spring 2013 designed to help adult students who have been unsuccessful at school mathematics to understand and make meaning their mathematical experiences and identities, while at the same time providing them with mathematical experiences in which they can stay connected and powerful. The semester-long course I am developing combines critical pedagogy (Friere, 2000; Frankenstein, 1987) and a method of feminist action research called memory-work (Crawford et. al., 1992; Onyx & Small, 2001). I combine these powerful methods for collective self-examination with lessons from relational-cultural theory (Hartling et. al, 2000), story-editing approaches (Wilson, 2007; Wilson, 2011) which allow people to authentically develop growth mindsets (Dweck, 2007), and with mathematical problem solving so that people can unpack their mathematical identities and place them in a cultural context while developing mathematical skills and having real-time access to emotions surrounding mathematics.

I am very interested in connecting with others around this research and classroom work. I’d love to have conversations about this connects to the work of others, to find collaborators, and to present my work as widely as I can! Next year I will have a sabbatical in which I plan to write substantial portions of a book tentatively titled Liberation Mathematics: Narrative and Number, and I believe that engaging with lots of other people inside and outside of mathematics will really help me to craft this work carefully and make it as useful as possible. I am also looking for funding that would allow me to take a full year of sabbatical for the work, so if you have any ideas (even if they are crazy ones), let me know.

Crawford, J., Kippax, S., Onyx, J., Gault, U., & Benton, P. (1992). Emotion and gender: Constructing meaning from memory. Sage Publications, Inc.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House Digital, Inc.

Frankenstein, M. (1987). Critical Mathematics Education: An Application of Paulo Freire’s Epistemology. In I. Shor (Ed.), Freire for the classroom: a sourcebook for liberatory teaching (pp. 180–210). Portsmouth: Boynton/Cook.

Onyx, J., & Small, J. (2001). Memory-Work: The Method. Qualitative Inquiry, 7(6), 773 –786. doi:10.1177/107780040100700608

Wilson, S. (2007). My struggle with maths may not have been a lonely one: Bibliotherapy in a teacher education number theory unit. Mathematics: Essential research, essential practice, 815–823.

Wilson, T. D. (2011). Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change. Hachette Digital, Inc.

Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. (M. B. Ramos, Trans.) (30th Anniversary ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group.