Oprah, Brene Brown, Teachers, and Shame (Oh My!)

When I saw the video below it hit me pretty strongly as, “An idea teachers need to engage with.” When I find an example being made of education in the media that portrays the messiness of teaching in a negative manner I want to share it. I want to hear what others say. I did that on Saturday with this video of Brene Brown Ph.D. who talks with Oprah about the use of shame as the “number one classroom management tool.” I reposted it pretty quickly with the following comment.

Shame is still the primary method of behavior management everywhere. Kid quote, “I may be making a mess but I am not messy.”

What I thought might become a discussion of the role of shame in classrooms and even society became something else. What happened was many of my dear and compassionate teacher friends became offended by the blanket statement of Brene, in response to a question from Oprah of “this really happens?” She said, “everywhere, every classroom, private, public, poor, wealthy, it doesn’t matter.”

It was a mistake. It came off as teacher-bashing. She admitted so on her blog. Below are several parts of her very well written explanation. What I was happy to find in her post was the level of nuanced examination of the topic I was hoping to find with my colleagues. I have edited it to be read more easily in this context. Please read the full post for a clearer picture.

When I watched the clip I realized exactly how it could be perceived as teacher-bashing – I’m pretty sure I would have felt the same way….

I’m sorry.

I believe teachers need more support, more appreciation, and more money…

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…

My passion about “every” is/was a response to the fact that many people argue that shame is a public school issue or a “poor” school issue or a Catholic school issue or anything that’s not who they are. That’s not true….

I could and should have offered way more clarity about this…

It sounds to me that Brene gets it. She understands that this was not the best way to explain what she was talking about. She went overboard. As I said on Facebook, “I think Oprah has that effect on people.” Then, in her blog post, she went on to ask the question I wanted to ask my teacher friends.

How can we even recognize shame when we’re convinced that it doesn’t happen in our school or our classroom or our home? We’re human. It happens.

Based on my work, I do believe that shame is still one of the most popular classroom management tools. And, I’m often brought into schools to talk about this because administrators and teachers recognize it’s happening. It’s how many if not most of us were raised.

The problem is by using “STUPID” as an example on the show, we’re all quick to say, “Not me! Never!” We miss that we can use shame to manage a classroom (or a boardroom or a home) with invalidating glances, ignoring, favoritism, sarcasm (which were learning that young kids don’t alway process as humor), eye rolls, disengagement, and many other nuanced behaviors.

…shame is not always an issue in classrooms because teachers are using it intentionally. It’s an issue because learning is vulnerable and classrooms are tender places.

That last sentence Brene wrote could have been written by my friend Ms. C. who totally denied on Facebook ever engaging in shame. I actually believe Ms. C. because I have seen her teach. She is a hero of mine who has always championed the perspective that learning makes us vulnerable and classrooms are tender places. Tender as in easily bruised. Brene also brought up another important factor. Shame is part of our culture. It is part of how we are raised and it arises from fear of disconnection, a human fear, not a childhood one.

I don’t want to leave it here. I don’t want to say, “Shame is bad, Brene is cool, I’m done.” I am not sure I believe that.

Here is why.

For some time I have felt that some children have no sense of remorse for their hurtful mistakes. I am talking about hitting, name calling, etc. They don’t know what it is like to feel shame as Merriam-Webster defines it.

: a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong

: ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment

: dishonor or disgrace


Where would we be if there was no shame in society? Could shame be a way we learn from negative behavior? Is it necessary at all? Is fear of disconnection, as Brene Brown describes it, different from the common understanding of the term?

The idea that shame is not valuable to society doesn’t seem to ring true but, I don’t know why. The type that she described in the video was a simplistic and grotesque example. How about a more realistic one.

I had a three year old student, Damon (psuedonym) last year who pulled the fire alarm. The firefighters came, lectured our class, and he didn’t get caught. He denied it without shame as did all the other kids. I actually started to suspect students of the mischief that I had never suspected before. We didn’t know who did it. The next day it happened again. For some reason I looked at Damon, and asked “Did you pull the fire alarm?” he said, “No.” but seemed to have a shadow pass over his gaze. I said, “Really?” Now, with mischevieous look he replied, “Yes.” I asked again. “Did you pull the fire alarm?” He said, “Yes.” That guilt, and possibly shame, changed his answer and his whole body and demeanor changed. Then he felt shame. Was that a bad thing?

If shame is a function of our beliefs and our culture, how do teachers navigate this cultural phenomena in a sensitive and intentional way that deepens our practice without falling into the trap of good and bad simplification of teaching? I don’t want to shame my students but my classroom is a part of society and shame may or may not have a purpose in society.

Perhaps the most important part of this shame equation in classrooms is not just the shaming but, what happens next. Is the burden removed? Brene talks about openly discussing her unintentional shaming of students with a class. Does a teacher who shames a child intentionally or unintentionally reaffirm connection? If connection is the lever of pain for shame’s use in classrooms, and that connection is maintained or, even made stronger by working through those feelings, then what? This is where I hope our community can chime in. Lets talk about it.

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  • ArielSacks

    Everything in teaching is more layered…

    Brilliant!  You really took this discussion to another level.  The role of shame in our society… really has me thinking.  The big lesson, in a way, is that everything in teaching is more layered than most of us are aware of.  There is always more digging to do. I did have some funny feelings listening to Brene’s interview… I was thinking, “I basically agree with her, but am annoyed by the way she’s presenting this.”  First you added layers to that–turns out, she made a mistake and took responsibility for it.  

    Although I do believe that coersion, punishment and shame pervade so much of “school” as we know it, and this gets in the way of learning–like you, I also didn’t entirely agree with her argument. The big negative example, “I am making a mess, but I’m not messy” seemed a little silly or overly sensitive to me.  Sometimes we are messy. That doesn’t mean we can’t be different tomorrow or that we don’t make choices about how to be. But I also don’t want students to walk around with a distorted sense of reality. If you make a mess every single day and don’t clean up, eventually you will be seen as a “messy” person. You can change, but it might take some effort. I don’t know; maybe I’m just being argumentative

    Anyway…  Thank you for elevating this one.  

    • JohnHolland


      I think one of the most pervasive uses of shame is the idea of the Stop Light color chart. It makes student behavior a public matter and students who aren’t “on green” end up not caring and still making life hell for their peers. The ones that do care freak out if the lose a level but when they do it doesn’t necessarily change things because, they weren’t the type of kid to do disruptive behavior all the time anyway. I think one thing we need to consider is that shame “is” a part of classrooms. Adminstrators shame teachers, teachers shame kids, etc. Our school is using public shaming by rewarding profusely students who were uniforms to school. I have a child who only has one uniform. She wears it every day. I am not sure this is the message that students need from the whole uniform decision.

      Any way more another day. Ps (I am messy but I have gotten better).

  • Sherlyn Laurelli

    My thoughts

    The first time I heard Brene speak about teachers using shame, I too thought…no we don’t. But then I began to sit back and observe teachers around me. Sadly, many (not all ) do use shame as their main classroom management tool.   While I do think using a little shame maybe ok, if a teacher has built a level of respect in the classroom.  

    There is a correlation between shame and things like aggression, addiction and bullying. We all know that these are things that are a very big part of society.  Can teachers solve these issues alone, no but we can start to be aware of the language and behaviors that we use in our classrooms.  Just because it has grown to be a part of our culture doesn’t mean it should continue to be.



  • JohnHolland

    A Level of Respect

    Sherlyn I think this sentence is the key.

    ” While I do think using a little shame maybe ok, if a teacher has built a level of respect in the classroom. “

    I asked my daughter if she had seen students shamed. She said yes but, it was always like the teacher was giving the kids a hard time.


    She also said, “Most teachers want students to learn. Kids don’t learn if they feel bad about themselves so the goods one tend to avoid shaming and stuff.” Not too bad for a 12 year old.

    I think what the tag line of that Upworthy post did was make it about the particular interaction and not the idea of respect and communication that this issue is really about.

  • JulieHiltz

    Does shame really exist anymore?

    I was having this discussion with some of my colleagues the other day. In light of reality tv and social media some would argue that shame doesn’t even exist anymore. I would say it does, but the scale has been rebalanced. As a society we accept more behaviors with the explanation that we can’t judge or it’s a personal choice. But is that really the truth or what we tell ourselves in order to justify our behavior?

    I try to be a good person and teacher and I know sometimes I fail but I try to learn from the experience and not make the same mistakes again. These days, when someone behaves badly in public now, all they have to do is apologize and all seems to be forgiven- even if they don’t change their behavior. 

    • BillIvey

      Public examples, private feelings, and the classroom

      Julie, I totally hear what you are saying about facile public apologies becoming the norm. Worse, I feel, is that they are frequently not even actual apologies. The frequently heard “I’m sorry if you were offended…” just turns the responsibility right back on the person who was offended, and furthermore places the very fact of their having been offended in doubt. At some level, all this has to be shaping how we react to the ways that people we see and with whom we deal every day (not to mention ourselves) might occasionally be in the wrong. We might take it as the new normal or as a negative role model. Either way, it’s shaping us.

      So all this brings up the question of intentionality. What was the intention of the apology listed above? Basically, I would argue, to get the offender off the hook with as little personal pain as possible. Not to try to make the other person feel better. Not to try to atone for their wrongdoing. Those last two intentions, I would argue, should have been the goal.

      Similarly, whether in the classroom or in other situations, when one person inflicts shame on another, they may or may not have had the intention to do so. If they did, there’s a lot more for which to apologize and atone. If they didn’t, the apology and atonement are still necessary. “Oh my God. I totally see how you took that, and I am so sorry. I never intended for you to feel that way, and I hope you know that I really feel…” can go a long way toward rebuilding, perhaps even strengthening relationships.

      And finally, of course, one can feel ashamed without anyone else truly making you feel that way. In such cases, some people might place blame on the nearest target, or on the person who brought forth the information that gave them perspective to realize the implications of something they may have done. But in neither case has shaming per se actually happened. And since one could argue teachers have a responsibility to help kids acquire the ability to understand situations from other people’s perspectives, that second case could almost be seen as the ideal – as long as the teacher also helps the student process that feeling of shame and where it comes from, remaining ever alert that they themeslves may have inadvertently crossed a line.

      Bottom line, I know I can’t teach effectively if my students don’t feel known and respected, and I do everything possible to avoid anything that chips away at that trust – including trying to role model proper behaviors whenever I (eventually and inevitably) blow it. And as someone who is always telling my kids we are all, every single one of us, deserving of being treated with basic human dignity, if I don’t role model that… well, then what is the point of teaching?

      Hoping this hasn’t been too rambling…

    • JohnHolland

      The Art of the Apology

      Your comments ring true Julie. our culture has really embraced the perspective of “do what thou wilt” and apologize later. Then, when you apologize, ask for forgiveness but defend your perspective and continue to act the same way.

      Really, I wonder if humility is what is missing in this equation as well.


  • SusanGraham

    Shame comes home to roost

     Humilation is wrong; bullying is wrong; but shame-awareness is a valid part of human development. The understanding of guilt, blame and shame are integrally connected to what we call moral behavior and the foundation of self-control that shapes awareness of the impact of our behavior on the rest of the world. Perhaps perfectly modulated internal intrinsic application of them would result in Eutopia, but without them it seems likely that  we would have anarchy  Guilt, blame and shame are the cornerstones of a legal system.  The concept of mental competence to stand trail is based on whether a person has the capacity to recognize that they did wrong. The individual who is immune to guilt, shame and blame is considered a sociopath. Like all powerful  tools shame-blame-and guilt should be used should be used appropriately and with care and respect. Imposing them inappropriately is abuse; but that doesn’t make them inherently wrong


    HERE’S WHAT IS FASCINATING!  Brown is either shame-unaware or else she intentionally uses the  tool of public shaming all teachers as a way to build awareness of shame! AND It worked here on teachers who are among the least likely I know to be insensitive to the feelings of their students. So, I would say that she makes an excellent arguement that shame is an effective tool to maipulate  behavior.

    But here’s what bothers me the most. She says “I was wrong.” within the context of perception.  She then excuses herself becuase she is “passionate.” She does not acknowledge that as a research it is inexcusable to make wildly unsupportable claims. She does not acknowledge that she did harm.  She does not acknowledge that she is disrepectfully making judgementsabout people in situations that she knows nothing about.  She does not acknowledge that her semi- “mea cupla” on her blog does not undo her blanket public shaming of all teachers  on national  TV.  If passion is her excuse for the harm she has done to others, then she perhaps she should re-read her own book and then get out her dictionary and reconsider the value of a little shame

    a: a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong

    : ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment

    : dishonor or disgrace

    • JohnHolland

      Oh My!


      As usual you bring it home in such a real and deep way that I would be afraid to cross you. I only wish Brene Brown would respond here to your perspective and offer some more depth to the discussion.


  • BriannaCrowley


    Although I don’t have a well-thoughtout addition to this fantastic discussion, I did want to publically thank those teachers who are engaging with this post. First John, you have tapped into an extremely complex and relevant question that could be latent in our classrooms. By bringing the issue of shame to light, you allow us to examine our classrooms and society to understand the why behind our actions and how they affect our students. 

    I hope this continues to clarify my thinking as divergent and nuanced positions continue to emerge. To gather more voices, I have cross-posted this on CTQ’s GOOD.is platform. 

    • JohnHolland

      Thank you

      Thank you Brianna. I have a feeling this post will come back to haunt us all for a long time. At least until we can engage with more of the public in a non-reactionary way.

  • Chris Willis

    Systematic use of shame AND Guilt v Shame

    Ok, so researchers are human too. This is good news for me as I am a relative recent mover from K-12 education to the role of researcher/professor. 🙂 There are two big things that I feel needs to be considered here. First, there is a difference between shame and guilt. The second is how schools systematically (and therefore teachers) use shame not guilt within the day to day operations. 

    I have followed Dr. Brown’s work for some time. She is a brilliant researcher and has developed some really important findings for how we treat each other. As a researcher, I don’t know that I believe in synonyms. In the post and the above comments I think there is an attempt to use these terms interchangeably and I don’t think that is correct or in alignment with Dr. Brown’s work. For me, guilt is the feeling that occurs when an individual comes to understand that they have violated an agreed upon moral code. The reason we find some children not feeling guilt as we think they should might be because they modulate their behavior under a different moral code. This is not about religion. But, it is about how different children come to understand and interpret actions as either “right” or “wrong”. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling we have when we are made to feel as someone less than. Shame in this sense is not about right or wrong but about being worthy. It is about being reduced in importance by someone else. Shame and guilt are not two sides of the same coin. They are different and while I might not have the same type of definition as Dr. Brown, I think she would agree with that point. Guilt is healthy; shame is not.


    So, how to schools use shame? A point I have made with teachers, administrators, and my current students is that schools go out of our way to call kids failures. Don’t believe me? Ask any 7 year old to fill in the following blank: A, B, C., D, __. What will they say? “E,” right? Of course they will. But, ask a 7th grade teacher to fill in the same blank and they will say “F.” And what does F stand for, FAILURE!!! We systematically go out of our way to tell a child that he or she is a failure. We go out of our way to make them feel that they are less. We go out of our way to shame them. If we didn’t want to do this shaming the grading scale would be A, B, C, D, E. Or if we wanted to keep F (failure), the scale would be E (excellent), AA (above average) A (average) BA (below average) F. But instead as defy the logic of either of those naming conventions and use A, B, C, D, FAILURE. It has an impact and we have to own it. We should feel guilt about it because it is morally wrong to do. We should be more willing to look at all aspects of our practices and root out how we make kids feel like less.


  • Jennifer Lock Oman


    I am a clinical social worker by profession, and an adjunct instructor in a graduate program in social work.  For the last 15 years I have studied Affect Theory developed by Silvan S. Tomkins and discussed in four volumes title Affect Imagery Consciousness.  Among the nine affects covered in this brilliant and comprehensive theory of personality is the affect of shame.

    What I understand about shame, both theoretically and clinically, is that it is innate, universal and biologically driven.  We can observe it, as we can the other affects, on the faces and in the prosidy and body language of neonates.  It evolved over eons (as have the other affects we come equipped with) to provide us with a survival advantage.  Even the affects that feel the most noxious and toxic — fear, anger, distress, etc. – evolved with a purpose.  Not just to bedevil us.

    The idea that we can prevent shame, or that in fact it should even be or can be “erradicated” is simplistic, dare I say sophomoric.  Sorry to say it, but from my 25+ years of research, writing, teaching and clinical experience the bottom line is this:  Brown does not really have a grasp of what she’s talking about. 

    The distinction between shame and guilt are, and have been understood, for years.  That was covered in the above discussion.  To parse shame, guilt, humiliation, etc. as Brown does as if they are all separate affects is ridiculous.  They all live in the shame family of emotions.  The psychological and physiological response to the experience of any of them is fundamentally the same.  Eyes turned down, the tendency to look down and to the right, the loss of tonicity in the neck, the general slumping in the body, sudden loss of energy, foggy thinking, etc.

    There is healthy shame and toxic shame.  We all have different triggers for shame.  And, just the experience of having shame says that we care about connection.  In fact, people with an inordinate amount of shame are generally people who really care about connection and have a tremendous capacity to love.  

    Shame is going to be triggered whether it’s used as a “management tool” or not.  Whenever our connection and/or interest is interrupted, shame is going to be there.  The task is to repair the “interpersonal bridge” so that the connection is restored.

    By the same token, If our own shame turns our eyes inward and shines the light on our own trespasses it then points us to right behavior.  It serves a function to restore the connection WE have disrupted by untoward behavior, whatever that is.  

    The goal is not to “get rid of shame” but to understand it, try not to inflict it, manage it and repair connection when it occurs.  Because it will occur.  And, sometimes it is necessary to keep us between the white lines.




  • SusanGraham

    Benefits of Shame

    It seems to me that guilt and shame are so intertwined that it is difficult to address them independently. If you look at these definitions, it almost looks like a progression from personal perception to public perception.

    :a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong

    : ability to feel guilt, regret, or embarrassment

    : dishonor or disgrace

    If guilt is the personal aspect that makes us duck our head, how do we know we have done something wrong? It seems to me that we learn that from the response of those around us. Even though that response may be discomfort, disapproval, or anger it may not be because we have done something morally or ethically wrong. But it probably indicates that we may have broken a social or cultural expectation. If, by necessity or choice, we seek to be in relationship with the others in the group, we are embarrassed, we regret our behavior–not because it was wrong–but because it made others uncomfortable. We feel guilt, and therefore make modifications to avoid being dishonor and disgrace.

    Shame is a external function that maintains the mores and values of a specific society under specific circumstances. Talking on a cell phone is not ethically or morally wrong. Talking on a cell phone in a movie theater, however, will result in shaming looks or comments from others. Public shaming changes behavior for the benefit of the whole because it communicates the mores and customs of the culture. When shamed, we have choices. We can (a) change our behavior (b) withdraw from the setting (c) ignore the shaming and deal with the consequences of making ourselves an unwelcome presence.

    Shame, like love, anger, fear, can serve a useful function in relationships with individuals and the world around us. When used with care and followed with support to change behavior, it can help the individual become a more sucessful member of a  society while protecting society from inappropriate behavior by individuals. Shame it can also be abused; especially when it is used indiscrimately and undeservedly and especially when it is used against individuals with unequal power or voice. But placing blame indiscrimately on all teachers national TV? Guilty, Dr. Brown. Shame on you. You did harm.