Student shame: What can teachers do?

The desire for sociologists, psychologists, social psychologists, educators, educational theorists, and other academics to understand, analyze, and measure the impact of human emotions on the lived experience is not new. One such human emotion is shame. Shame is the belief that there is something inherently wrong with oneself (Brown, 2004; Ferguson, T., et al., 2000, Nathanson, 1992; Scheff, 2000; Tangney, J., Price, & Dearing, 1992). Shame can have long-lasting effects on individual change, growth, and progress as it creates somewhat of tunnel vision of what the individual may not like about him or herself.

Student shame and its implications on student growth, progress, and achievement is a topic that has interested me for a long time. As a High School teacher in a public high school, I have often pondered the reasons why some students demonstrate high levels of academic achievement, progress, and growth while others do not. I have contemplated why some students, when asked to assess their work, grade themselves much harsher than I would or than their classmates would grade themselves. In order to address this self-confidence deficit, schools have sought to incorporate the concepts of Grit (Duckworth, 2016) and the Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2007).

Duckworth contends that “talent x effort = skill” and that, “skill x effort = achievement”. She argues that a person’s intelligence and IQ is no more important that the effort they put into learning a particular skill. Dweck argues that there are two types of mindsets: “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset”. Essentially this means that those with “fixed mindsets”, give up in times of struggle or failure while those with “growth mindsets” analyze how they might improve for the next time, reflect on what they learned, and look for ways to develop and learn difficult skills through support and practice.

Despite implementing both Grit and Growth Mindset, many schools still struggle to meet the academic and socio-emotional needs of their students. I began to contemplate the root causes of why, although schools are making critical culture and leadership shifts, do kids still fail. If what Duckworth and Dweck say is true, why do so many students fail?

Systemic shame has detrimental effects on human development and growth. It is a means by which those in power seeks to control, manipulate, render powerless and in need of saving or controlling for those who are not part of the dominant culture's own good. Shame is a means of social manipulation and control.

The dominant culture in the United States sends mixed messages to students who are not part of the dominant culture. To me, breaking the systemic and ubiquitous shame cycle that embodies our culture is imperative. Some of the ways in which teachers can support learning environments that are shame-aware are:

  • Listening to student opinions and ideas about classroom policies;

  • Honoring diverse perspectives;

  • Recognizing that shame may come in many different shapes and sizes (body, ethnicity, poverty, violence, academic, sexuality, etc);

  • Acknowledging publicly, in class, that each student’s life experience is of value and may not look like their peers or even their teachers;

  • Teachers acknowledging that they have never “walked in their (students) shoes”

  • Providing learning opportunities that are culturally responsive;

  • Acknowledging the contributions of LBTQ+ in our history;

  • Being mindful of their (teachers) own positionally and privilege.

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