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Three Ways to Take the 'Shame' Out of Teaching

Sara Urben pic.jpg

Guest Blogger:  Sara Urben

Picture the scene. It's the end of the work day on a gorgeous, sunny, seventy-five degree summer afternoon. Today is the last of a seven-day staff orientation. It's been tiring but inspiring. I'm transitioning from being a classroom teacher to working as a reading and math interventionist and am psyched to be in a new position that combines both my gifts and passions. Students come tomorrow.  I feel prepared, excited, and ready to take on the world (or at least this school year).

I'm walking down the stairs on the way out the door, purse in hand, spring in my step, work laptop left behind in my office. I'm only steps from the door, when another teacher sees me about to leave. 

"Leaving at 4:15 the day before school starts? Must be nice. I wish I could do that," she says, chuckling as she walks away. Now, I really like this teacher, and I don't think she said this with malicious intent. However, as soon as she did, I immediately felt only what I could describe as intense shame. 

"Uh, I always like to relax the night before the first day of school. It's what I do every year," I said awkwardly. 

As she continued walking, I stopped dead in my tracks. Who was I to think I could leave on time ON THE DAY BEFORE SCHOOL STARTED?!  It didn't matter that I'd done a great deal of work over the summer. It didn't matter that I had gone out of my way to help friends who are classroom teachers set up their spaces. It didn't matter that I'd stayed late almost every day of orientation. What mattered was that I was a slacker teacher who wasn't pulling my weight, who wasn't doing everything in my power to make sure my students had a great first day back.

So what did I do? I did an about-face and started knocking on peoples' doors, desperate to help other people out so that I didn't feel so gosh darn badly about myself.

Over the past year, I've begun listening to and reading the work of Brene Brown, a social worker and shame researcher.  I became familiar with Brown's work after her TED talk on shame and vulnerability went viral a few years ago.  Her work focuses on how shame holds us back, and prevents us from living happy, wholehearted lives. 

Brown is always careful to distinguish between shame and guilt, though the two terms are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation. Guilt, she says, is a feeling of discomfort when we have done or failed to do something specific. Shame, on the other hand, is the intensely painful feeling that we are flawed--the pervasive feeling that we are not good, pretty, hard-working, perfect, loveable, (fill in the blank,) enough.

Guilt = I did something bad.  Shame = I am bad. 

To be human is to experience shame. Certain people are more shame-resilient than others; but none of us are immune. Shame triggers, or 'shame gremlins' as she calls them, are everywhere. They are the annoying voices in our head constantly popping up and telling us that we are not enough.  

Much of what Brown talks about really resonate with me, probably because I work in shame gremlin breeding grounds.  They're called schools.  Schools:  places filled with do-gooder perfectionists who, in an effort to do what's right by children, often allow the feelings of not-enoughness to overtake their work (and their lives).  That student did not make enough reading growth because I am not hard-working enough.  My class is out of control today because I am not respected enough.  My bosses and colleagues don't value what I have to say because I am not good enough at what I do.

As I've become more familiar with Brene Brown's work, I find I'm better able to notice when my personal shame gremlins are hanging around.  I'm working on critical awareness, reality-checking the expectations that trigger shameful feelings, and speaking openly about shame.

So, in that spirit, I present to you three goals for this school year, adapted from Brown's "Guideposts to Living a Wholehearted Life."  

1.)     I will cultivate calmness and stillness.  I will drastically cut back on the amount of time I spend checking e-mail in the evenings and on the weekends. Sure, there may be times when I need, or even want to work outside of school hours. That's okay. What I'm not going to do is mindlessly scroll through my work e-mails whenever I have a few minutes of quiet time in the checkout line at Target. I will not allow an angry parent e-mail or a More-Things-I-Need-To-Do email  to ruin my night. I've also removed work email from my phone. Seeing how instinctually my fingers remember the familiar touch-screen path reminds me of how important it is to set firm boundaries between my professional and personal life.

2.)    I will cultivate self-compassion. I love my colleagues and am constantly awed by the work they do in their classrooms. Most teachers (and probably people) are our own worst critics. This year, I will consciously flip-flop the Golden Rule, and rather than treating others how I'd like to be treated, I will treat myself and see myself in the esteemed way I do others.

3.)    I will let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. If a teacher writes unit plans for hours in a forest, but doesn't tell anyone about it, were they really working at all? How often do you ask another teacher how they're doing, and they respond immediately with how busy and tired they are?  I've definitely been guilty of this. I will let go of the shameful feelings that I must be exhausted and miserable if I'm doing my job well. I don't need to work constantly. I am a good enough teacher not because I stayed up until 2 a.m. writing report card comments. I am a good enough teacher because I am enough.

I'm hopeful that living by these guideposts will not only help me to be happier, but will also help me to be the authentic, creative, wholehearted teacher that my students deserve. The next time I leave the building right after work, I don't think I will feel so bad about myself because self-awareness is the first hurdle. I hope that by sharing my experiences and goals others will recognize and fight their own teacher shame gremlins.

Here's to a wonderfully successful school year, professionally and personally—after all, there is a difference!

SARA URBEN is a reading and math interventionist at a charter elementary school in Chicago. Now in her ninth year of teaching, Sara is interested in educational policy, teacher retention, and advocacy for diverse learners. She enjoys a peaceful life with her dog, Benji.

Blog post updated 9/26/14
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