Shame in School

My partner, Michelle, was recently preparing for a parent workshop she was offering around the importance of vulnerability. She used this diagram to outline the interaction among connection, compassion, courage, gratitude, and vulnerability.

Michelle and I are often sharing our explorations, findings and questions with each other as we design learning plans for others. This always increases our learning and insights. One of the items she shared with me as she researched was a blog post by Brene Brown titled, Teachers, Shame, and Worthiness: A Lesson Learned.

Brown writes that a statement she had made in a video was interpreted by some teachers as “teacher bashing”.  She spoke of classrooms where a teacher might use shame for classroom management. Brown suggested she should have been clearer in her example and she shared her high regard for teachers and the work that they do.

She added:

As a researcher, I do believe that shame is present in every school and in every classroom. As long as people are hardwired for connection, the fear of disconnection (aka shame) will always be a reality. I don’t believe shame-free exists but I do believe shame-resilience exists and that there are teachers creating worthiness-validating, daring classrooms every single today.

Several teachers commenting on Brown’s blog, refused to accept her explanation and insisted that they never shame students:

“Too little and too late. The damage you’ve done to my profession and to my opinion of you is irreparable. I don’t listen to anything you have to say anymore because you have given the “Oprah masses” validation for teacher hating. So, shame on YOU! “

As I heard Brown’s words and the commenters’ words in the blog, I agreed that there is no shame-free classroom or school. The design of the institution and its policies are ripe with shame. It takes hard work from teachers to create the resilience to shame that Brown mentions. She cites what many of us would see as an innocent occurrence. In a graduate class, she asked “How many of you are familiar with ____________?” (A recognized book) After class a small group of students approached her and explained that they felt “major shame” when they looked around and everyone had read that text but them. Brown shared how she apologized and debriefed the situation with the entire class. Those actions, I believe, help build shame resilience.

I recall shame occurrences at school:

  • Spelling bees in elementary school… I sat down early.
  • Being a high-school student taking higher level classes without the background of many of my classmates
  • Attending a parent conference and being told by a first- grade teacher that my daughter lacked focused “time on task”
  • Having a school send my daughter class rank at the end of her freshman year
  • Driving up to a school and seeing the average SAT score posted on the school marque
  • Reading newspaper stories of students’ test scores being printed under their teacher’s name

In this video, Brown describes the relationships among shame, empathy, vulnerability, and connections. One description that she uses identifies shame and empathy as two ends of a continuum. The greater empathy I have the less likely I am to create shame. This rings strongly for me with my past understanding that “knowing” is so critical in building relationships (connections).

So, I am now pondering how this topic of empathy and shame fits into our work as instructional coaches and school leaders:

  • How do I explore the topic of teacher’s empathy with students? Does a lack of “knowing” students lead to teachers feeling threatened by student learning struggles and unable to empathize?
  • As a school leadership team, do we “know” parents well enough to build connections? How might we increase our “knowing” and empathy?
  • As leaders and coaches, do we “know” staff well enough? Does the staff “know” each other well enough to share vulnerability and empathy with each other? How can we build “knowing” among the staff?
  • Does the staff “know” me well enough? Where am I missing my opportunities to be vulnerable and thus missing connection opportunities?
  • When are staff feeling “shame” from my words or actions?

I’m sure this is only a starter list of questions guiding my future learning. Hope it provides pondering for you.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 35 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…