A few weeks ago, I went to a local School Improvement conference hosted by TEA. The first day I had the privilege of hearing Brene Brown speak about vulnerability and shame within the education system and I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t shed a tear once or twice during her talk because it was just so true to what I’ve experienced as an educator.
She asked us questions like how many of you have experienced working in a place you knew you didn’t belong and how many of you have worked for someone who uses shame - each time I raised my hand quickly, regardless of sitting next to the Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum.
Here’s the truth I learned from Brown: shame is one of the best ways to get students to follow our lead and do what we say. It’s also the most detrimental.
Every time we use it – every time we sneer and belittle and whisper and point fingers, someone’s character is deeply changed.
And if we want to change the culture of a school to be successful, shaming teachers is not the way to do it.
I’ve worked under both regimes – one of vulnerability and one of shame. Vulnerability celebrates community and belonging. It recognizes achievement and notices improvement.
Shame? It just weakens the already broken links between colleagues. Students feel it – this pervasive fear of administration – and faculty walks on eggshells down the hallway hoping to not run into the one who can make you question your career with a simple sentence.
I’ve been called worthless, a disgrace and disrespectful.
I’ve also been celebrated for my achievements, recognized for my abilities and thanked for my hard work.
Two very different environments – and two very different outcomes.
Working under an administration who used shame, I constantly had to remind myself I was doing what was best for my kids. Regardless of administration, I knew the books I read or the discussions we held or the units I created were handcrafted toward their success. I questioned myself a lot those years and come October I always considered a career change. I was just too tired, too spent, too neglected.
Working under an administration who tapped into vulnerability, I recognized my worth as an educator. I knew my strengths not because of anything I did but because the admin constantly spoke into me. Tears were common in meetings not because of harsh words spoken out of haste but because of realization of students’ hardships or reality of the bond we had as a staff.
So how do we tap into vulnerability? Brown says to build a culture where people can be brave. In one of her exercises, she has CEO’s share something they fear. She believes transformative leaders constantly exhibit openness about this area of their lives with their team – and usually she’s met with extreme resistance. However, there’s two things she sees consistently after a leader shares:
The leader leaves feeling as if that moment was the most excruciating of his life, and his team feels as if they just witnessed the most courageous act they’ve seen in awhile.
I know not all of us are in a position to begin acting on Brene Brown’s advice with colleagues – but I wonder what would happen if teachers began using this process of vulnerability within the classroom. I’ve had way too many students walk into my own classroom sharing stories of teachers prior who spoke shame into their hearts – saying words like “hopeless” and “stupid” and “slow” – the damage is irrevocable.
But think of the power we have to speak love and belonging into these kids’ lives – the impact we could have over the next generation. We may receive shame from administration, but that shouldn’t change the tactics we use when the door closes to our classroom.
A couple years ago, at the height of me dealing with an administration I feared, a student of mine let me know with tears running down her cheeks that she didn’t believe in her own ability to succeed. I looked at her, pulled her close, and whispered in her ear four simple words – “I believe in you.”
The next day, she walked shyly up to my desk and sat down on the ground behind my chair. I turned to look at her and she smiled, “Mrs. Ramirez,” she said, “I just wanted to let you know what you told me yesterday? About believing in me? You’re the first person to say that to me – and it means so much. I just wanted to thank you.”
She was seventeen and never had anyone whisper any form of encouragement – all she ever received was criticism. And I had no idea – I knew she struggled but didn’t know the history of verbal abuse, from both home and school, she experienced in the past. With one phrase I showed her I cared (which I did).
What are you showing your kids who walk into your classroom?