Thinking about Shame and Empathy in the Classroom

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.” Dr. Brene Brown

Lately, I’ve been thinking about shame after a colleague related the following story: “One of my students has been dealing with a lot lately, more than most middle school students should be dealing with. His mother has been communicating with all his teachers via email, and these emails contain private information regarding this young person’s current emotional state. One of his teachers left her email open, a classmate read the email, then proceeded to spread the information throughout the middle school. Word got back to the student and naturally he was devastated.”

Many, many thoughts raced through my mind, the first of which was “Shame on you!” Shame on the teacher for not protecting this child’s privacy. Shame on the student for snooping where she should not have been. Shame on the students who spread the information.

Being raised in the South, I heard that phrase many times throughout my childhood and have used that phrase in my own classroom without really thinking about what it truly means to the child hearing these words. As an educator, it is my job to see that all students are treated with dignity. That means not just the victims, but the bullies as well. And that isn’t always an easy thing to do, but anytime you can approach a situation with empathy for all involved you will have a more positive conclusion.

Let’s step back and take a good look at this situation. The student experiencing mental stress is the victim here. He should not have to experience this humiliation, and fortunately there are experts in place continuing to help him deal with this most recent blow. The teacher happens to be in her first year. She is passionate about her craft and sincerely wants what is best for all her students. She is feeling remorse and has learned a valuable lesson from this egregious mistake.

Which brings me to the other students and what we know about adolescents. Their brains are not finished forming; the frontal and prefrontal cortices are still developing. This is the area that controls our executive functions including judgment, reason, and impulse control. As educators we must remember that just because they look like adults does not necessarily mean they are going to act like adults. Their classmate has been missing school, often for weeks at a time. Many have known him since elementary days and are sincerely concerned about his well being. Isn’t it natural that they would be curious to find out what’s going on? Isn’t it natural to want to share that information?

So what is the next step: do we blame these students, shame them into feeling remorse, or do we create a teachable moment? What would you do?

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