The Art of Shame: Shaming Kids Into Compliance

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”

- Haim G. Ginott

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Let’s talk cars.  When most people buy a car, they either do a little research on a car they like or they find a great deal that just can’t be passed up.  Perhaps people aren’t as ignorant as I am, but to be honest, I could hardly tell you anything about makes and models of cars on the road.  I really don’t give them much of my attention, so I know very little when it comes to the latest and greatest thing on four wheels.

Nevertheless, I can tell you this: whenever we look to buy a car, I seem to see that same car model everywhere once I start driving.  For example, one car my wife was interested in lately was a Honda Element.  So, of course, what did I start noticing when I was driving?  Yes, Honda Elements.  Profound?  I sure hope not.

My point is, once we are made aware of a particular occurrence or object, we’re that much more prone to spot it.  The same can be said for behaviors.  Once we identify negative behaviors in our own interactions, it’s a little easier to identify those same negative behaviors in others.

My aim today is to write on negative behaviors that often drive-by unnoticed in our schools, and perhaps in our very own teaching.  Namely, I want to focus one of the most pervasive, and destructive components still very common in today’s classroom: shaming students into compliance.

I think we all know what outright shame can look like and sounds like in a school.  I’m sure we’ve all seen that Nazi-like teacher rip into their students simply for showing up at school and continuing to breathe.  Blatant shame is as easy to spot as a blatantly bad teacher (side note - both unfortunately, are protected by tenure).

Yet, I think it wise to even notice the small ways in which we still shame students.  It can sound like this, “You need to go to your desk and put your head down and think about what you did.”   “Sara, you’re going to be needing to explain to your parents that I’m giving you extra homework tonight because you just cant seem to follow directions.” And, “Johnny, you go to the end of the line because you just can’t seem to understand how a line works” (these three examples were all said in front of the whole class – and aren’t all that uncommon in the school setting).

Sure these aren’t flagrant degradations, but I’d argue that if we are willing to shame kids in little ways, we’re probably fine to justify its use in other ways.

Now, I must admit, (pragmatically speaking) shaming students is quite effective.  Nope, nothing works quite like good ol’ humiliation in front of one’s peers.  Yet, if a principal tried to shame a teacher for “blurting” during a staff meeting, there would be hell to pay.  If an administrator tried to publicly shame a parent for taking too long in the bathroom, there might be a little issue at the next PTO meeting.

So if we know that shame has no place in adult interactions, why are we so prone to use it with kids?  Is it because they can’t really fight back?  Is it because we can simply get away with it?

Actually, I think we’ve deceived ourselves into using it in much more subtle ways - suggesting it’s some scientifically verified approach to pedagogy.  We mask shame with terms like “discipline” and “management” or as part of a “behavioral system.”  We use shame in quick-fix situations. We use shame because it’s powerful and it’s instant.  We use shame because it’s easy and it’s effective.

It’s also amateur.

That’s why I’ve decided to remove shame from my pedagogic toolbox altogether.  Shame is toxic.  It is an adult-justified version of bullying. It’s weak.  It’s petty.  It’s wrong.  It is a component of control that is no longer part of my best practice.

And how could shame even fit under the guise of "best practice?"

Shame As a Tool

So here’s the deal.  We teachers need to take shame out of our toolbox.  If we allow shame to be a tool in the toolbox, it fundamentally changes the way we teach.  It fundamentally and irrevocably changes our interactions, our communication, and our relationships.  This remains true even if shame is our last resort.

If shaming kids is a last-resort practice, it still remains an option - and that changes everything.  

The new iPhone just came out, and my archaic loner-phone is about to be replaced! To my mind, I seem to have two options when it comes to possessing the new iPhone.  I can work hard, get paid, borrow money, set up a charity to receive money, or do just about any number of things to get enough money to purchase the phone.

Or I could just steal one.

So, let’s say that stealing a phone is an option, but I will only use it a last resort.  Exactly how hard am I going to work for money, if I still have theft as a last resort?  If, at the end of the day, I’ve decided that it’s perfectly fine to just steal the iPhone, will I really try all that I can in order to pay for one?  Will the fact that I find it morally justifiable to steal the iPhone affect my overall attempt to work for it?  Of course it will.

Let me try my hand at another example.  Let’s say I need a job.  I work hard to build my resume, comb through my LinkedIn profile, and work hard at nailing some top-notch interview skills.  But then let’s just say, if the employer doesn’t offer me the job, I’m going to try to blackmail her through some trumped-up harassment charge.  If at the end of the day, blackmailing is a viable option, exactly how hard am I going to try prepping for that interview?

The same goes for shame.  Even if we have shame as our absolute last resort, it still fundamentally changes everything we do.  If we still keep shame as a last resort, it enables us to use it en lieu of everything else.  If it is still in the toolbox, it is still an option on the table.  

One bad tire affects the whole car, folks.

I hope this doesn’t sound too radical.  For God’s sake, I hope this sounds completely rational.  Nevertheless, I know if I presented this to some teachers they would probably argue, “Well how else can I get little Jimmy to cooperate?”  I would probably answer, “It’s not cooperation if you’re using coercion – it’s manipulation.”

I’m not sure about you, but cooperation and creativity trump coercion and manipulation in my book.  If schools are to be centers for learning, which would you rather have your child learn?  Critical thinking or unwavering compliance?  Cooperation or coercion?  Self-worth or shame?

If we take shame and coercion of the table, all we have left is creativity.  Yes, situations will arise that will require us to think differently, but isn't it a good thing if coercion is never an option?  When we stifle coercion, creativity thrives – and in the end, I think we’ll be amazed at what flourishes in its wake.

Feel free to add your thoughts, stories, or comments below.