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When Teachers Use Shame as a Disciplinary Tool

I doubt if there's a single experienced teacher out there who wouldn't cop to using at least a little bit of shame, on occasion, to manage their classes or deal with troublesome individual students.

Humiliation and isolation are commonplace as school punishments, often written into policy in teacher handbooks or accepted as reasonable practice in addressing serious misconduct. Even for conscientious folks who are adamantly opposed to behavior charts and public chastisement, the impulse to embarrass the recalcitrant runs deep in the American edu-psyche. The shaming remark often pops out when teachers are frustrated, at their wits' end—when they are trying to gain control. To win.

Shame and shaming are strong words—which is why I want to make sure that readers don't think I am claiming that I never verbally cut a student off at the knees, and am on some kind of moral high horse here. I used low-key shaming remarks most often in my early career, before I figured out that it's highly unreliable as a behavior modifier, and often backfires. Still, the impulse to verbally discredit a child whose actions are completely unacceptable never quite goes away.

In my experience, students who are shamed repeatedly often respond by shutting down, avoiding the mortification of being unable to perform or behave in socially acceptable ways. If they don't care and are not trying, their inner rationale goes, they can't be hurt by humiliation.

Or, conversely, some shamed students push back in ways both visible and invisible. They demand attention, they disrupt instruction and other students' learning, they cause damage to people and things.

In Student Discipline: The Shame of Shaming (Phi Delta Kappan), Joan Goodman distinguishes between shame, embarrassment and useful guilt, admitting that there's a lot of distance between crushing a child's self-concept and nudging his conscience into an attempt to improve.

In sum, for shaming to occur, people must be observed disapprovingly by others whose values they share, and they must believe that they deserve the criticism. When shaming does occur, it can be a very powerful experience, entailing "a painful negative scrutiny of the self -- a feeling that 'I am unworthy, incompetent, or bad.'"

When students decide that they don't deserve the criticism, shaming strategies fail, and chances of a workable relationship between student and teacher fade or disintegrate into a power struggle. 

Goodman is careful to note that mild shaming, which she labels embarrassment, can be temporary, something a child can work through to a resolution to avoid the undesirable behavior. The child who has experienced deep personal humiliation is different, however.

The shamed child is unlikely to reflect on whether and why her behavior was wrong; more likely she will conclude, "I must have done wrong because you think I did."

Goodman's research is especially welcome now, at a time when charter schools are attracting parents who are seeking strict disciplinary policies. In fact, her data was gathered from nearly 500 charter schools, using disciplinary procedures (some endorsing explicit shaming) found in their handbooks.

Some thoughts from my own experience:

  • Most teachers deal daily with a range of misbehaviors. Teacher judgment about what to do and say when a child is out of line is the critical expertise. Such judgment is not easily or quickly learned.
  • Nevertheless, a skillful, sensitive teacher beats a 100-page handbook full of escalating discipline guidelines and procedures any day.
  • Key to all classroom management is knowing your students and treating them with respect, being committed to their opportunity to learn and their inherent worth. That's the foundation—but it's not even close to enough.
  • Teachers need a bag full of ideas and options around discipline because they're coping with 30 different sets of needs each hour. They are also human. Mistakes happen.
  • Kids bring different personas and life experiences to class. For some a sharp reprimand does no harm at all to their well-nourished ego and simply redirects. For others, being publicly chewed out would feel like a violation of trust, a betrayal.  It's hard, at first, to figure out which kids need the hand on the shoulder, and which need the kick in the pants.
  • Which is why discipline—the spectrum running from guilt to shame—is always best and most effective when handled only by the two individuals involved. It's easier to retract or rework a disciplinary pronouncement—Do it or you fail this class!—when it's just the two of you.
  • Teachers who try to prevail—to win—in conflict with students may find themselves in an ongoing contest of wills. It's better to stand back, remind themselves that they are the authoritative adult in the room, and avoid demeaning a child whose behavior is intolerable.

Much of the literature on shaming in schools is around kids who behave badly. Goodman begins her article, however, by discussing schools that publicly shame students by making them wipe down tables after lunch, because they lack lunch money. That's a whole other story, and far more insidious.

It's hard to understand why any institution whose mission is educating students would deliberately dishonor a child for any reason. But they do. Here's a story that will break your heart.

At 16 years old, Gabe Richards has been working hard to get good grades. He's secured straight As while being a part of the special education program at Marysville High School. But, after getting invited to be honored at an academic awards ceremony Monday night, Gabe says he was disappointed to be told at the event that his invite was a mistake.

Yup—the awards ceremony was only for students who earned top grades in what the superintendent calls "academic" (read: "real") classes. The superintendent promises that policy and procedures will be changed so this mistake will never happen again.

He should be ashamed. 

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