Shame permeates our schools and classrooms. Kids shame their peers and, sometimes, usually unwittingly, teachers shame their students.
Compassionate classrooms, detailed in Hacking Classroom Culture by Angela Stockman and Ellen Feig Gray, extinguish shame.
Read the excerpt below to find out how to eliminate shame in your space and design your own compassionate classroom.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget
how you made them feel.
—MAYA ANGELOU, AMERICAN POET, MEMOIRIST AND CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST
Whether we like to admit it or not, teachers have the potential to have a profound and lasting effect on our students. Sometimes we are remembered in ways that belie our best intentions. Ellen tells a story of when she was in AP American history class, more than 40 years ago. The teacher liked to call out students when they weren’t performing up to his expectations of how they should be participating in his class. For him, classroom discussion was of great value, as he believed we learn best from a free interchange of ideas and interpretations of the readings.
She vividly remembers how this teacher, in his desire to encourage participation, shamed a very quiet and anxious student when he said, in front of the whole class, “Robert, we haven’t heard from you at all this semester. I think I’ll replace you with a potted plant!”
When we feel vulnerable and are subject to shame, we shut down, retreat into ourselves, feel unworthy, and become embarrassed and unproductive.
To this day, her heart palpitates and she feels the tightness in her abdomen as she recalls this embarrassing event. And the shaming wasn’t even directed at her! It turns out that this student was painfully shy, extremely anxious, and the victim of teasing and bullying because he was so socially awkward.
When teachers shame students, or peers shame each other, trust is broken and connection is eroded.
Another experience Ellen recounts is that of one of her childhood friends, whose third-grade teacher made him stand in the garbage can on a regular basis, in the corner of the classroom, because he fidgeted in class, appeared uninterested in the lesson, and spent more time gazing out the window than completing his work. The teacher had decided that this student would never succeed and the only job he was fit for was as a sanitation worker, and she felt it was her responsibility to make a point of that to the whole class.
Ellen and her friend now laugh about this incident more than 50 years later, but the emotional trauma this teacher caused remained fresh for a long time and greatly affected his self-confidence in his own academic abilities. (Fortunately, that didn’t stop him from becoming the head of one of the world’s leading foreign policy think tanks after attending an Ivy League college and earning a PhD.)
What his third-grade teacher didn’t realize at the time was how bored he was with the lessons she was teaching and how he needed greater intellectual challenges to keep him focused. She also failed to realize that he was a naturally deep thinker, who would always be more engaged by what was going on inside his head than what was happening around him. Nonetheless, she was quick to judge, and relied on shaming to try to whip him into shape.
These examples of shaming and humiliation are extreme and tantamount to child abuse. Most of us are well meaning and would never intentionally hurt a student by shaming them with our words or actions. But classrooms are by nature potentially shaming places where students are subject to judgment, evaluation, assessment, grading, scoring, comparison, criticism and scrutiny for how they perform, behave and stack up against the rest, and what they say, do, and reveal about themselves on a daily basis. That makes schools the ultimate in vulnerability communities and students continually at risk for shaming and humiliation.
Add to that the social environment where students are made to feel less than by their fellow students through teasing, bullying, and shaming. As the adults in the room, we must be sensitive to the many, often subtle ways that kids may treat each other badly, including saying and doing hurtful things in your classroom, as well as through social media. Many students are coming to class feeling ostracized, fearful, threatened, anxious, bruised and distracted by these emotions. It is important that we appreciate their experiences and acknowledge how those experiences may contribute to their reticence.
It is collaborative and vulnerable, with everyone taking risks. And shaming is not an option….
When we feel vulnerable and are subject to shame, we shut down, retreat into ourselves, feel unworthy, and become embarrassed and unproductive. When teachers shame students, or peers shame each other, trust is broken and connection is eroded. This can happen even when we are not conscious of the power of our words and are not being purposefully shaming. For example, it’s common to hear teachers say things like “If you put as much time into your algebra homework as you spend playing in the band, you might be more successful.”
A comment like that is often meant to motivate a student to work harder, but in reality it makes them feel less than worthy, and inadequate. The teacher can reframe the comment with something like “I’ve seen you put a great deal of effort into practicing your guitar so you can play in the band. How might you spend more time studying for your math tests so you can master the problems? How can I help you pass this course?” Often it’s when we recognize and appreciate who our students really are that we can best help them become the best they can be.
We need to reframe the way we think about ourselves and our students. If we acknowledge their vulnerability—and ours—we can operate from a place of empathy and compassion and open ourselves up to seeing our students as human beings who want what we all want—to be loved, accepted, and to feel worthy of succeeding.
Dr. Brené Brown points out that vulnerability is a human emotion that is neither good nor bad. In fact, she sees vulnerability not as a weakness, but as the core of all of our feelings. When we shame others we are derailing their courage to be vulnerable.
The truth is that all students, no matter their age, grade level, academic ability, or apparent self-confidence, come to class feeling vulnerable. When we acknowledge them as human beings, with complex emotional lives like our own, we are equipped to help them prepare to open themselves up to real learning. Shaming not only disrespects them, but may also set them up for failure, lack of engagement, low motivation, and a perpetual self-defeating attitude.
Learning entails taking risks, and it is our responsibility as teachers to create an environment where students can open themselves up to what’s possible, to try to reach their potential and to be embraced for who they are.
When we reframe vulnerability as having the courage to take risks, to be uncertain, and to expose ourselves emotionally, that’s when real growth, change and learning can take place. It is up to us to create an emotionally safe environment that is built on trust and respect, nurturing students’ potential rather than shaming them.
There are a number of things you can do to shift the tone of your classroom to a more positive one. You have more power than you may think in creating a community that’s based on safety and trust, where students feel comfortable enough to open themselves up to learning. Here are some suggestions:
PRACTICE VULNERABILITY. Show your students you are vulnerable to being judged and shamed, just like they are. If you reveal yourself to them, they will open themselves up to letting you know them. On the first day of class, Larry Schwarz, whose story we shared in Hack 2, tells his students that who they see now is not who they will see tomorrow, in a week, in a month, or at the end of the semester.
“Right now, who you see is an overweight, older man, and you may be thinking things and making certain assumptions about me that you will find out are not true as you learn more about me and spend more time in this class.” When we admit we are all vulnerable, and reframe our vulnerability as an opportunity for authentic human connection, we have the potential to form healthy, positive teacher-student relationships of trust that foster learning on all levels—academic, social and emotional.
ILLUMINATE POTENTIAL SOURCES OF SHAME. By shining a bright light on what students may be worried about when they come to class as well as what they most wish for, we can normalize their feelings of vulnerability and begin to treat them with respect. Angela uses an exercise called “Wishes and Worries” when she works with students to assess their interests, their needs, and their fears, and to understand that they are not alone in their feelings.
She also uses what the students reveal to create agreements about how they will treat one another in class, and from time to time returns to the wishes and worries theme to check in on how she is keeping her promises to fulfill their wishes and create a space where their fears can be allayed. We have provided a protocol for Wishes and Worries for you to download, in the supplemental resources folder for Hack 5….
PROMPT POSITIVELY. Choose positive words when communicating with your students about their potential. When you assess a student’s progress with specific constructive feedback that’s grounded in positive reality, you are offering them useful feedforward that they can build upon. Even when you’re attending to flaws, it’s possible to frame your feedback in a way that builds your students’ confidence. Rather than saying “This is where you need to improve,” consider using “This is what you’re showing me you’re ready to try next.”
Ten years ago, Starr Sackstein began teaching English and journalism to eleventh and twelfth graders at the World Journalism Preparatory School. As a teacher in a traditional system, she became disturbed by the cutthroat competitiveness and lack of collaboration among her students. She observed how students were defining themselves and their worth exclusively through their grades, and not through what they were their learning. The A students flaunted their high-achieving status and held it over their less-than-A peers. Students who were getting grades of less than a 90 felt worthless, shamed, and less than, merely by virtue of the fact that they did not measure up.
She wondered what it would be like for them if she substituted the grading system with a feedback system that featured constructive comments. Starr was able to identify with her A students, as she was one herself. When she began to put herself in her students’ shoes she realized that they were ex
Experiencing what she had as a student—there was nothing more important than achieving high grades. She remembered how her teachers constantly reminded students, “If you don’t do your work, it’s going to affect your grades.” And she became ashamed at what she calls some of the same “abuses of power” she was “perpetrating against her students, unknowingly.”
During report card season in 2011, Starr became acutely aware of the atmosphere of anxiety that pervaded everything at her school. What was notable to her was the anticipatory excitement that only the A students exhibited. “When report cards were handed out, there were either cheers or tears.” When she came to terms with how she was about to grade her students with letters, she compared that to how her own son in elementary school was being evaluated through what she considered much more informative and reflective narrative feedback.
She began to consider how she could better communicate her AP literature students’ progress and learning accomplishments on their report cards. She wanted to change grading from an “isolated judgmental experience to a collaborative conversation.” She felt that it was “time to give students the words to talk about their learning, in a meaningful way.”
Starr brought more self-reflective student practices into class. And she began the conversation with her students: “What do grades mean to you?” At first there was frustration, especially among high performing students whose self-worth had been inextricably tied to their grades. She realized that “shifting the mindset around something like grades was hard work,” but she refused to “slip back” into the strict letter grading system. As she observed the process, she saw her students “engaged in learning, pushing boundaries, and articulating growth in ways they didn’t know teenagers could.”
She attributes these results to taking risks and trusting each other. The self-assessment no-grading system Starr has used with her students is continually evolving with the input of students. She continues to involve them in an iterative process of empathy, prototyping, testing, and refining as they go. It is collaborative and vulnerable, with everyone taking risks.
And shaming is not an option….
To learn more about extinguishing shame and designing compassionate classrooms, look inside Hacking School Culture here.
This excerpt is provided with permission from Times 10 Publications