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.

Writing a Paper and Asking People to Read It

Original image description from the Deutsche F...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week I had a paper published in the journal Rationality and Society, “Division of Labor in Child Care: A Game-Theoretic Approach” . You might like the paper — it’s pretty interesting actually. But the first thing that’s interesting about this paper is that it did not occur to me to announce it here. For heavens sake, why not? My excuse is that I assume (erroneously) that you might be interested in my thoughts on education, but not in my thoughts on applied mathematics. Really that doesn’t even make any sense, and it’s not the real reason. I hope that you will find something in this paper that gets you thinking. In the paper I use game theory, a theory from mathematics and economics, to model an imagined situation in which two parents are caring for a child. The model itself is like taking the whole complex story of how real parents live and work with small children at home, and taking most of the story out, leaving just one aspect of the situation intact, in order to see what mathematics might say about how such parents would behave. The paper provides a great example of using mathematics to explore human relationships and building models of the real world in mathematics. It shows off what math is best at — abstraction and simplification. Writing it allowed me to explore sociology, gender, and economics, and it could provide a window on those vistas for all of you as well. I want everyone to read it that is interested in math education, applications in math, gender, and parenting.

Young couple with baby.

Young couple with baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So why didn’t I think to announce it here? Because I don’t want you to know that I want you to read it. I want this paper to be read without having to take the risk of actually asking people to read it. It is embarrassing to  release something you created out into the world. Asking you to read this makes me imagine you reading it, thinking about it, and judging it. That puts me in the realm of self-conscious emotions — embarrassment, pride, shame, guilt. I can imagine lots of reasons why you might find the paper lacking, and being able to produce quality work is important to me, hence the potential exists for me to feel shame. So I am caught in the middle between two desires that pull me in opposite directions. On the one hand, I should ask a lot of people to read the paper, and hopefully some of them will, and some will even talk to me about it. But I should also bury the work and never mention it to anyone. Best is if you just stumble across it in a journal, and email me to tell me how much you like it and what kind of interesting conversations it spawned in your family or in your classrooms; then I never have to imagine you reading it with a frown on your face. But that’s not going to happen, so I decided to share it with all of you in the hopes that you will read it and talk about it with me and with other people. (And FYI, in case you are wondering why I would say all of this,

I find that being honest and open about my fear, especially fear of shame, allows me to manage that fear. I still feel exposed, but when everyone know about that feeling I can more easily manage it since I don’t have to hide it.)

Anger and Shame in my Teaching, a sort of anti-liberation-math

English: A metaphorical visualization of the w...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Last week I wrote a post on another blog about being disappointed in students, which is something I struggle with and want to eradicate. Yesterday I realized that I had misnamed the problem. It’s not disappointment I struggle with, it’s anger. Anger isn’t a professional emotion as a teacher, and it makes me feel distant and disconnected with my students. My mission in life is connecting with students, so why would I repeatedly entertain an emotion that hurts my chances at living my dreams? And I do mean that I entertain the emotion of anger. I tolerate it, nurture it, and feed it. And I don’t just do it as a teacher. I do it with my kids, getting angry when I could be connecting. I do it with my spouse and my family, getting angry when they need me.

I have been studying shame for some time now, particularly shame around mathematics, which typically means shame around math in a school setting. Shame and anger frequently occur together, often in a cycle, so I should have suspected that my problem was really anger. Here is how it works, and how it connects to shame for me.

I ask students to do certain work and I have certain expectations of them and the work they do. I can do this because of the power that I have in the classroom. This is the power that I have over their grades, and the power that I have because they have been raised in a school culture of compulsion and obedience. When they do not do the work, or they do not meet my expectations, I feel that as a threat to my social self. I feel disrespected and I feel a version of shame because, in my eyes, the has student decided that my expectation was not important to them, and thus that I was not worthwhile. The work I ask for and expectations that I have are the clearest evidence of my relationship with the students, so when that is threatened, my relationship is threatened.

I respond to that feeling of shame by getting angry. Shame is an extremely uncomfortable emotion, so people will usually seek to cover it with another emotion, and anger is a popular choice. When I am angry, I can focus on the student as the problem, rather than the hurt, disconnection, or shame that I feel as the leader of the class. Furthermore, I can blame my feelings entirely on the students. The compulsory nature of education means that they should be doing what I say, and if they don’t, it is the students that are in the wrong, not me, the helpful teacher. And even worse than that, once I am angry, I don’t just want to let the problem slide, I want the students to know that I am right and they are wrong, to punish them and to have them accept that punishment as their rightful due.

Honestly, its a gross thing to admit to, and is the opposite of everything I want to be. I suspect that we all have this kind of shadow side, working against our dreams in the background even while we strive toward them in the foreground. I’m a good and caring teacher with a mission to connect with students — why would I keep this anger and meanness around? It’s my defense against being too vulnerable. I don’t want to look at what it means when students don’t do assignments, stop participating in class, or give up. Yes, sometimes it means that the students have things going on that don’t have anything to do with me. However, it can also mean that I am failing to build my relationships with the students and failing to find genuine ways to help them build power with and through math. It can mean that I don’t have real relationships with the students at all, only a dance with the students in which they carefully display certain signals in order to get the maximum grade with the minimum of effort. I’m responsible for that dance at least as much as they are, if not a little more. Why should they not be doing this when I have to admit to often falling back on my default job as a teacher, which is to compel students to do a certain series of tasks, to assess them on those tasks, and to assign them a letter grade that they take with them as a credential or a black mark. It can mean that I’m actually hurting them through my participation in a particularly oppressive subject within an oppressive educational system.

I sure want all of your thoughts on this one, whether you are a student, a teacher, or anyone who gets in the way of their own dreams and connections!

Shame and Mathematics Presentation at Joint Math Meetings

The Prezi below was given at the Joint Math Meetings. It reviews the concept of shame, explores how it impacts mathematics teaching and learning, and discusses what we can do about it. You can also view this prezi at Please get in touch if you like it, hate it, or just want to talk  about it!

Talks at Joint Math Meetings

I gave two (yes, two) talks at the Joint Math Meetings this week, and they both have prezi’s. The first talk was about my work using game theory to model gendered division of labor in parenting young children. This prezi is below (or click here to view at, and the work will be appearing soon in the journal Rationality and Society.

The second talk was on shame and mathematics — what it is and what we can do about it. You can see that prezi below (or click here to view at If you have comments, questions, or just want to talk about this work, I’m very excited about it, so leave me a comment!

Adopting a Protective Identity

Some people deal with mathematical difficulty and shame by adopting an identity includes being “bad at math.” This strategy is much-reported among mathematicians and mathematics educators. Back in 1975, Mitchell Lazarus, writing in the Saturday Review, summarized the response to this from mathematicians and mathematics educators: “Even those who are otherwise proud of their education tend to speak up freely about their mathematical ignorance. They can say, ‘I’m terrible at math,’ almost with a hint of pride, as if being poor at mathematics somehow is a mark of good taste in failure.”* Essentially, what people write about this phenomena is that people should be more ashamed of their mathematical difficulty than they are. That tells me that the adoption of this kind of identity may be an effective protection from shame. Instead of feeling shame for poor performance in mathematics, the person adopting this strategy is able to turn poor math performance into a positive shield. The identity itself can even be framed positively, for instance when people say “I’m an artist/people-person/writer/etc — I’m not really good at math.” That positively aligns the person with an identity that inhibits mathematical skill, protecting the person from shame.

I am a mathematician, and when people I have just met find out what I do, many of them immediately confesses to me how bad they are at math. What a perfect way for someone to take charge of their own safety in a new relationship! The person tells me right up front that I should expect nothing from them mathematically, and so spares themselves the possibility of me engaging them in a mathematical discussion, as well as ensuring that this “flaw” doesn’t come up later when it might compromise our relationship. I see this as an adaptive strategy. It used to make me frustrated, until I realized that I could also use it as an invitation to have a conversation about our responses to math individually and as a society!

To be sure, as a response to shame and mathematical difficulty, this strategy has some drawbacks. Adopting an identity that relies on perceiving oneself as bad at math would seem to preclude mathematical success and power. For a teacher like me, this is problematic because I really want people to be able to use the tools that mathematics has to offer powerfully (that is, when and how they want to). And even when students state up front in a class that they are poor performers, using a protective identity, I will still sit in judgment of them as their teacher at the end of the semester because it is part of my job to assign them a grade. One of the strategies that I use as a teacher to loosen those protective identities while protecting the students from the negative effects of judgement is to build strong relationships with my students, and give students access to me as something other than an arbiter of correct mathematics.

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Why did the self-esteem movement fail?

Most of us have heard that the self-esteem movement is a failure, and many believe that the emphasis on self-esteem resulted in a generation or two of entitled yet under-performing students. In math, for instance, it is often quoted that American students think they are great at math, but in reality they are near the bottom of the pack. But why would the self-esteem movement fail? It is certainly well-intentioned and plausible. It seems reasonable that students who feel terrible about themselves are going to have some trouble with learning, so wouldn’t raising self-esteem provide a necessary precondition for learning?

I wonder if the educational emphasis on self-esteem was really just a creative way to address shame and other difficult emotions. When people struggle in school (and in work), it feels terrible. School is an important part of a young person’s identity. When school is going poorly for students, their relationships with teachers and peers are in jeopardy, and they are probably struggling with shame. When we bolster student egos without addressing the underlying educational and relationship issues, we may have helped the students repair relationships, but the shame is still there. If we fail to address the core issues, we are simply helping the students to hide and manage their shame (and as educators became complicit in the hiding). If we fail to challenge students in their education, we communicate to them that we don’t trust them and don’t believe they are capable, which can serve to cement the shame and further disempower and alienate students. I think the real question is how we all learn to deal with failure and shame while staying powerful and connected.