Teachers, Shame, and Worthiness: A Lesson Learned


During my Super Soul Sunday appearance I talked about shame in schools and used a harsh classroom example about a teacher calling a student stupid to explain the difference between shame and humiliation.

I also explained that regardless of the type of school (private, public, or charter) shame happens in every classroom and that it’s still one of the most popular classroom management tools.

An excerpt of that interview was recently featured on Upworthy. I didn’t know about that posting until I started seeing tweets and retweets on Twitter. As I was scrolling through them I started seeing tweets that read, “Another attack on teachers” and “The war on teachers continues.”

My first reaction was, “Someone must have said something crappy about teachers in the comment section of that video.” Then I realized that I was the one being accused of saying something crappy about teachers.

Truthfully, I couldn’t believe it. I’ve been a teacher for 17 years. My sisters are public school teachers and one of them is married to a high school vice-principal.

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 immediately called my sisters. They both said, “Anyone who knows your work knows how much you respect teachers.” I realized that the “anyone who knows your work” is the problem  That’s why I’ll work to never make this mistake again. Teachers have a hard enough time without me using them as an example. Especially when shame is a huge issue in education and teachers are some of the people taking the bravest stance against it.

I’m sorry.

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

I know that I am who I am today because of several amazing teachers.

I know that I’m a better parent because Charlie and Ellen have  teachers who share their wisdom with me.

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. I don’t believe shame-free exists but I do believe shame-resilience exists and that there are teachers creating worthiness-validating, daring classrooms every single today.

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. There are resource poor schools and public schools and Catholic schools doing amazing shame-resilience work every single day. And, I’m lucky enough to witness that personally every day.

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

When people tell me their organizations or classrooms or churches are “shame-free” it worries me. It means it’s happening and no one is noticing or dealing with it. Shame-free classrooms ≠ teachers not intentionally using shame.

Even in shame-aware classrooms, I believe that we can say something that feels very benign to us and can be very shaming to a student for reasons we may not understand. I’ve done it. While teaching about shame. What allowed me to address and heal it was an open dialogue about shame and the students’ courage to speak up. 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.

For example, during my summer course I referenced a classic text in social work and said, “How many of you are familiar with ____________?” After class a small group of students approached me and explained that they felt “major shame” when they looked around and everyone had read that text but them. They are in a cohort of students who work full-time and are on a different course schedule. They said they struggle with “good enough” and “real grad students” already and that made it worse. I apologized and we discussed it in the big group the following day. My argument is that by denying that shame exists we shut ourselves down to that feedback. And the real learning happens in those moments. Sometimes I do it well. Sometimes I don’t. But I always try to circle back when I screw up because I know the possibility is very real.

As you can see in this example, 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. Some of the most daring classrooms I’ve seen are ones where teachers don’t use shame at all but recognize the physiology of students who are in that spiral and they intervene. Maybe it was a peer or their parents’ pending divorce or body-image issues.

Here’s my best attempt to clarify:

85% of the men and women we interviewed remember something so shaming from their school experience that it changed how they think of themselves as learners. Were those experiences always about teachers?

NO. There were certainly stories about being shamed by teachers, but it was also about students, administrators, parents, school social workers, and/or a system that is in desperate need of reform.

Teachers have tremendous power in our lives. That can also be seen here:

Over 90% of participants remember a specific teacher, coach, or clergy person who helped them believe in their worth and the value of their contribution.

How do system issues bring shame into the classroom? Best example: standardized testing.  Every spring we get emails from teachers who are at schools where children who fail the basic standardized tests are called out in public. Sometimes it’s simply by giving stuffed animals to the students who passed and leaving the others empty-handed. One teacher emailed because they were asked to color-code the students’ ID lanyards based on their scores.

Here’s another example. This is a story from Daring Greatly:

Several years ago my sister Ashley called me crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she told me that the Houston Chronicle had published the name of every schoolteacher in the Houston Independent School District along with the bonus they received based on their students’ standardized test scores. I hadn’t seen the paper that day and I was stunned. And I was also confused.

“Ashley, you teach kindergarten. Your kids don’t take the tests yet. Is your name in there?”

Ashley explained that her name was in there and that the paper reported that she got the lowest bonus available. What they didn’t report was that it was the highest bonus available to kindergarten teachers. Imagine doing that—reporting everyone’s salaries or bonuses and moreover reporting them inaccurately—to any other group of professionals.

“I’m in a total shame meltdown,” Ashley said, still crying. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was to be a teacher. I work my butt off. I’ve hit up everyone in our family for money so I can buy school supplies for the kids who can’t afford them. I stay after and help the parents help their kids. I don’t get it. There are hundreds of teachers like me, and do you read about that in the paper? No. And it’s not just about me. Some of the very best teachers I know volunteer to teach some of the most challenging students without any thought about how it’s going to affect their scores or bonuses. They do it because they love their work and they believe in the kids.”

I’m not arguing that teachers are perfect. I do think shame is an issue in education and I’ve seen how it finds its way into classrooms in many different ways. As a teacher I have made mistakes. I’ve unintentionally used shame when I was anxious and afraid. I’ve also stood toe to toe with shame and shoved it out the classroom door.

I’m not advocating for perfect teachers or perfect classrooms. I’m just fighting for awareness in schools. We need to understand how shame operates and the toll it takes on learning, teaching, and growing, regardless of the source.

One of my favorite quotes about shame and teaching is from a teacher. She left it on my Facebook page then gave me permission to include it in Daring Greatly:

“For me, teaching is about love. It is not about transferring information, but rather creating an atmosphere of mystery and imagination and discovery. When I begin to lose myself because of some unresolved pain or fears or the overpowering feelings of shame, then I no longer teach . . . I deliver information and I think I become irrelevant then.”

Teaching is about love. If you’re a teacher and I made your work more difficult. I’m sorry. You taught me an important lesson.


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  6. Michaela

    I need some advice. My daughter in a kindergartener in a classroom that uses the “clip system” it is a series of colors where kids publicly clip up and down according to their behavior. I feel it is almost equivalent to a dunce cap. I and another parent are taking our concerns to the school board. Any suggestions for resources that will help our fight? It’s a system that goes k-5.

    • Laurie


      Just wanted to comment here as looked this up for support

      I am 31yo who is now facing torment of having a teacher for 2 years back in 95/96 at the age of 11/12. These were very vulnerable years. I was one of the youngest in the class of kids most of whom were at least a year older than me.

      I was behind a lot and suffered trauma of having to read out my test mark in class for math, I only got 5% and the whole class laugh at me. This has haunted me ever since. Even though I now have a degree I still think I’m dumb and no good, basically a bad kid.

      I have suffered from addiction and this is due to self hatred. I am only now connecting the dots being brave enought to revisit this period of my life that I shut the door on as it was so painful

  7. Kristen Larson

    I was just googling and looking for a way to integrate your work into some staff development at my middle school about inquiry. I know this post is old but I feel compelled to comment. As learners we are not static. Our opinions, views, stances, etc are constantly changing! Thank God! That’s learning. I hope I never become static in thought. I hope my students feel safe to evolve and change in my classroom and school. You are free to retract anything you want and be believed and heard because you’re a learner in this world, too. Thanks for the insight. I’m a teacher and accept your apology. Thanks for your work. It’s changed me which changes my students.

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  9. S Clarke

    p.s. I have never ever called a child anything demeaning and the only thing that is S-T-U-P-I-D is your shaming of teachers and your backpeddling on the issue. Posting in insipid, justifying retraction does nothing.

    Thanks for making me feel invalidated. I will never, ever buy your crap or enroll in your s-t-u-p-i-d courses/seminars. I will focus on how to make my classroom an inclusive and positive place; as I’ve always done WITHOUT your help.

  10. S Clarke

    Too little and too late. The damage you’ve done to my profession and to my opinion of you is irreparable. I don’t listen to anything you have to say anymore because you have given the “Oprah masses” validation for teacher hating. So shame on YOU!

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  12. Kim

    I have been a teacher for 26 years, and I have never called a student “stupid.” Your comments deeply offended me. Maybe there are some teachers that resort to shaming students to manage their classroom, but I couldn’t believe that you would say that every teacher in America shames students – “every classroom, every day.” I’m not sure that you can go on Oprah, make a statement like that, and then later post an apology on a webpage and be forgiven. Shame on you. Ironically, you have just done the exact thing you advocate against.

  13. Chanda

    I am a professor of education. I am constantly observing in different schools. I agree with you completely that shaming happens every single day. I saw it happen just this morning in a preschool classroom. It’s defeating, demoralizing, and counter productive! Watching those little heads bow in shame is heartbreaking!
    As a parent of a kindergartener and first grader, I know that my own children would not put up with being shamed in this manner because their self-talk and Mommy’s encouraging words ringing in their ears tell them, “Hey! This is wrong! I don’t deserve to be treated this way!” And, you better believe they would come right home and tell me. We as parents need to monitor our own speech, be kind to our children, and teach our children to not accept this type of behavior.
    We as teachers need to use uplifting words and stop the shame!

    • Penelope

      I am looking for advice. My daughter has a teacher who uses shame quite regularly and it is starting to take it’s toll on her (she recently told me that she wasn’t going to bother doing homework because she’ll never get into college anyway. She is 10).
      What would you suggest I do to help get her confidence back? How would you suggest I address this with the teacher?

  14. I believe, you spent a lot of time time write this things, because you made some good points there…
    just keep and finish your agenda step by step…regard