Stopping the shame game

So there is this practice that is somewhat prevalent among teachers, and I don’t like it.

I call it ‘The Shame Game’. We all know what the shame game is. Either we play it with our students, or had it played with us when we were students, and we have all DEFINITELY seen it played sometime in our lives. The shame game looks something like this:

Student comes to class. Student needs a pencil, but doesn’t have a pencil for whatever reason. Usually they forgot it or it got lost (somehow, magically, in the 10 steps between their last classroom and your classroom) but sometimes their friend took it and broke it in the seconds your back was turned to write something on the board, or maybe they dropped it and it rolled underneath your bookshelf and now they can’t get it, or they threw it up in the air and now it’s stuck in your drop-down ceiling. Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything.

Anyway, so student comes to class, and they don’t have that pencil. Your job is to teach them responsibility, right! Why don’t they have that pencil! Why aren’t they prepared for class! And this is where many teachers start to play the shame game – they say those exact things to the student. The student, of course, feels so incredibly thankful that the teacher pointed out to the class that they were unprepared and that they are a dumb loser (maybe not in those words, but we can read between the lines here) who can’t even hang on to a stupid pencil, and never forgets their pencil again. Right?

Right?

I have a student, who I love dearly, who is in my Spanish 3 class. He has struggled since day one to play the school game properly. He has gotten better over the years as we have found strategies for him to be prepared, be on time, to stay organized, and probably a little bit has to do with simple maturation. But the *very first day* of class this year, he somehow managed to leave his chemistry syllabus on my table. I don’t know how, we didn’t even need to open our binders that day, we just talked in Spanish about nothing in particular. Now, I could’ve played the shame game and thrown it away – ha ha, that’ll teach him responsibility to not leave his stuff lying around! – or I could’ve chosen to be the compassionate teacher, found him in the hallway and handed it to him with a smile, saying ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this.’ As I will with every. single. paper. he will leave in my room over the course of the year, as he has for the previous two years.

Because here’s the thing, fellow teachers. Playing the shame game helps no one. It doesn’t teach responsibility. We know this. That kid is still going to forget their paper, day after day after day. Or their pencil. Or their binder. Or their computer. Some teachers seem to take it personally. It is not personal. Sometimes the student has an undiagnosed problem with their executive function (aka, the part of your brain that controls decision making and organization.) Sometimes they just have a brain fart. Maybe the student is being bullied in a place where we can’t see and they start the day prepared, but someone is taking their stuff before they get to us. Some people are just plain ol’ forgetful. Playing the shame game only raises the affective filter, makes them more nervous, and paints us as jerks. We are not jerks… right? That’s not how we want to portray ourselves. We already have tv shows and movies for kids to do that for us.

To add insult to injury, these things do not happen in the adult world. As an adult, if I go to a meeting, paper and writing utensils are frequently provided for me. If they aren’t and I don’t have something, nobody asks me for a shoe or my planner for collateral. If I run out of dry erase markers in my classroom, my school has an entire closet of extra supplies in the office and I can take as much as I need and nobody ever asks why I didn’t plan ahead. It’s also far easier for me to keep my items where I need them because I’m not tromping around a building (and then to and from my house) with all my stuff – it stays where I put it in my room, mischievous students aside.

So here’s the point. The shame game does not teach responsibility. It doesn’t stop students from forgetting their whatevers. All it does is hurt our relationships with those students, make us look like jerks, and makes it seem like we care far more about a stupid 10 cent pencil than our students. I don’t know about you, but at this point in my career, I can always get more pencils. (They don’t pay me THAT little, or I can just get them from the aforementioned well-stocked closet.) I can’t always repair a damaged relationship with a student. The shame game is not worth it. Please, let it go. Compassion will take us much farther in our goal of educating all students.

Even if we have to grit our teeth as we smile and say ‘Hey buddy, I think you forgot this,’ for the seven hundred zillionth time.

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2 thoughts on “Stopping the shame game

  1. YES. Agree 100%! If you walk through the halls of my school after dismissal, you can find “at least” 2 or 3 discarded writing utensils on the floor. Put those in a pencil box at the front of the room and BAM!, after 180’ish instructional days you have enough for ALL of your students, without a second wasted on discipline.

    • I do this very thing already. Great minds think alike! Kids know if they lost something in/near my room, that’s where they can find it (if someone else didn’t claim it first) or otherwise, they’re freebies. The upstairs custodian knows just to throw the random pens/pencils in my jar, haha. Except my pencil sharpener died so I haven’t done my usual beginning-of-year restocking so it’s kind of bare at the moment – but I will get it reloaded as soon as I can!

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