“Ellen is not working up to potential.” These were the seven words that were written in the teacher’s comment section on my second grade report card. This message cut me to the quick, made me feel unworthy of being in the “gifted” class, “less than” my peers, not good enough in the eyes of Miss Rothman, and not having earned the approval of my mother and father. How could I ever measure up to my classmates, some of whom were choosing to read novels by Leo Tolstoy for silent reading period? Why wasn’t reading Pippi Longstocking good enough? What’s my potential, anyway? And what did I have to do to work up to it?
What I now realize that these seven words ended up taking on a life of their own, forever replaying in my head, accompanied by the lingering feelings of shame that gnawed at my gut, long after second grade, well into my adulthood. And in addition to their long-lived emotional consequences, they ended up having even further social repercussions as well when I was transferred into a lower tracked class for third grade, and isolated from my school friends. Though I was back in “gifted” by fourth grade, and continued on that track for the rest of my formal education, I always had to work harder to remain in the friendship group I had in the early grades, and was ostracized or marginalized in some cases.
Why am I telling you this story? Not to blame Miss Rothman. I suspect that her intention for writing those seven words was to motivate me to try harder, or to alert my parents that I might need extra help meeting her standards for achievement. And certainly to gain your sympathy. But to point out that sometimes we say or do things that shame people unintentionally. When we fail to practice empathy.
As we begin Hack 5 of Hacking School Culture: Designing Compassionate Classrooms, we invite you to explore your personal experiences with shame and vulnerability. This discussion in itself often makes us feel vulnerable. Reliving feelings of shame can be uncomfortable, but we believe this is an essential area to explore as we are designing and sustaining compassionate classrooms.
On Wednesday, we will take this discussion even deeper, with reflective questions such as:
How in the past have you experienced feelings of shame? What were the circumstances? Who was involved?
How might you have unintentionally shamed someone else? A child? A friend? A student? A colleague? What was that like for you?
How have you intentionally been vulnerable with your students? What was that experience like for you? For them? Did it have the desired effect for you in creating connection with your students?
If you’d like to chat between now and Wednesday, we are happy to engage on our Facebook page and on Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.