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

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shame

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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