Collège Champittet
29 May, 2020

Breaking the cycle of shame

Breaking the cycle of shame As a school, we can move away from a fear of failure, by opening ourselves up and being vulnerable.

It is always the same story. Shame and fear of failure are at the root of many problems we face in and outside of school. Like the snake in the garden of Eden, it sneaks up on us, whispering words of deception. We act out, covering up our nakedness. Students shut down, isolate themselves, or become defiant. Hiding the shame of their reading struggles or attention deficits by defiance, isolation, or indifference. Teachers, facing these students every day, recognizing that they are preaching to an audience who doesn’t want to be there and seem to care little about what they say, close their classrooms to collaboration, masking the deep, dark feelings with a rugged, arrogant, unflinching attitude. How can we break this cycle?

As I write I think specifically of our students with special educational needs (SEN). We know the deep frustration these students and families experience. The years of failure. The countless complaints these families have received from schools. We also personally know how difficult it is being a teacher and struggling to manage a class because half of the boys are ADHD and can barely maintain attention for more than 2 minutes. What is the solution? The behavior will only escalate until we can crush the head of the serpent, accepting that, as prophesied in the Bible, our heel will be bruised.

We crush the head of the serpent of shame by showing up to our classrooms with vulnerability and authenticity. Like the pain of a bruise, this hurts. Brené Brown said it best in her book, Rising Strong; “Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggle of others with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us”.

Accommodations for SEN given without empathy and compassion won’t help much. Show me a teacher who models those attributes, who is vulnerable, accepting his/her mistakes, and showing up each day being real, and we will see a vibrant class full of creativity.

Teachers! How can we kill our shame? How can we develop our craft, for teaching is truly a craft. It is both science and art.  Teacher observation is often done by a dean or academic director three times a year. Let’s be honest, we all know this is a dog and pony show. Teachers and kids are on their best behavior, it is not an accurate image of what is actually happening. In Los Angeles California I was a part of a PLC (professional learning community). Each week, I would meet with 4 other teachers and we would discuss, critique, analyze, and explore the successes and failures of our work as teachers through the use of protocols to guide the discussion.  In the definition of PLC’s we see repeated the theme of vulnerability, “Protocols help educators achieve trust and create a culture that is essential for collaborative work on issues of substance. You can’t wait until the culture is “perfect” to engage in protocols; it is through their use that the culture will develop and trust will emerge.

Lois Brown Easton, Protocols for Professional Learning

The effectiveness of the PLC movement is incredible. What makes it so effective is because teachers are working weekly, throughout the year with their colleagues. They are being vulnerable, observing one another’s classrooms, critiquing lesson plans, assessments, and outcomes. They share failures and discuss successes, analyzing why both occurred. It becomes about craft and community. Openness and trust bring light into our classrooms, slowly the feelings of shame and failure will slither away, looking for other dark places. If teachers need trust to be collaborative and make progress, how much more do our students need to trust us? We trust those most who are authentic, who exhibit compassion and show empathy. For struggling students to succeed, they first and foremost need to feel that it is ok to fail. The best way to show them this is, to be honest about our own failings and shortcomings. To model.

As a school, we can move away from a fear of failure, by opening ourselves up and being vulnerable. This may hurt. One way to do this is by bringing parents in to participate and collaborate.  Natalie Packer and Jackie Beere encourage schools “to enable parents to have a stronger voice in the SEN system and for professionals to treat parents as partners with expertise in their children’s needs.   The Perfect SENCO. To have parents coming into our classrooms on a regular basis, being part of the management team requires great vulnerability. We know we are not perfect, but like the president of Pixar said, “Don’t wait for things to be perfect before you share them with others. Show early and show often. It’ll be pretty when we get there, but it won’t be pretty along the way.”  Ed Catmull, Creativity INC

The truth of the matter, our number one goal, should not be for all students to pass exams. Our number one goal is that all students, in every class feel safe enough to ask questions. If we model and value what it means to be socially and emotionally healthy, over and above academic success, the grades will follow. Vulnerability is the key and it starts with the adults in the room.

Dyslexic students have shame because reading takes them so much time. ADHD students have shame because they can’t recall a word the teacher said during the last 20 minutes of class despite all their efforts. Teachers have shame because they feel the disconnect in the classroom with their students and the content. Deans have shame because they know what should be done but do not have the time and resources.

Let’s tell the snake to get the hell out of our garden. Let’s be vulnerable. Let’s begin talking about our nakedness; our failures, frustrations, and struggles. Invite colleagues and parents to collaborate with us, allowing them to truly see what is happening behind the classroom doors knowing that avoiding failure is worse than failure. Let’s promote a culture of trust and creativity in our classrooms so students truly feel confident, even in their failures. Let’s be real.


Michael Thompson
Special Needs Coordinator