School and shame


I read an interview with author, speaker and academic Brené Brown in which she said, “Eighty-five per cent of the men and women that I interviewed remembered something so shaming in school that it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners. And these play out in your later life.”

This makes me so sad. I remember lots of shaming things in school, not just around learning. And one of the reasons I started to question Harry being at school was I noticed him questioning himself, changing his personality, feeling worried and guilty.

One day he said that they’d played Rounders in PE and he hadn’t been able to catch the ball and some friends had laughed and others had been annoyed and he was upset that he’d let them down. I could never catch the ball in Rounders either. Or hit it, for that matter. I remember being a fielder and praying that the ball wouldn’t come anywhere near me. I remember seeing it flying towards me, looking up and being dazzled by the sun and thinking “I’ll tell them I was dazzled by the sun, that’s why I couldn’t catch it…” even before I’d tried to catch it. And I didn’t catch it. And no one cared whether or not I’d been dazzled, they just thought I was an idiot. What gets me about that is I didn’t even try. I’d already decided there was no way I was going to catch it, so I didn’t even try. Isn’t PE meant to be fun? Isn’t there a way to… I was going to say “teach PE” but does PE even need to be taught? Couldn’t PE be play?

Couldn’t all learning be play? (Einstein thought so, he said, “Play is the highest form of research.” But, you know, let’s not listen to that guy…)

Learning can be such a joy, that it seems awful that school should be a place of shame, but so often when I talk to friends about home ed – when they’re trying to understand why we’re doing it – they give me an example of some aspect of school that made them feel shame. Sometimes it’s the changing rooms/showers or something that happened with a friend, often it’s how rubbish they felt they were at a certain subject. I’ve had friends tell me they’re still embarrassed – 20, 30 years later – because they didn’t understand some aspect of maths. But why be embarrassed? That’s the failure of the school, not the student, surely? I read this quote from Stanley Kubrick just the other day

I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation. Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, etc. Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.*

If you try to motivate with fear, is it natural that children will feel shame when they don’t learn? I don’t know.

We can’t avoid shame, I’m pretty sure. But I’m hoping that being home with family, with people who love them, will help my children learn how to deal with it. And if you haven’t watched Brené Brown’s TED talk, you must.

* That quote is from here, the rest of the post is also worth reading.


5 responses to “School and shame

  1. A great, insightful post. Thank you
    Your rounders example is a great one; I too was “rubbish” at catching at school and to this day, if I’m required to catch a ball in any situation where there are others but my husband and J there, I get that familiar feeling of dread rising from the pit of my stomach. Shaming is something that we’re making sure we avoid at all costs with J. Just yesterday, as we were driving to visit a museum via a parcel collection centre, I kept going down the wrong road. Each time I did, I said “Oh, aren’t I silly?” J laughed whilst insisting I wasn’t silly to the point where he actually sounded quite annoyed. It really made me think. Why should I be silly because I went the wrong way? It was a mistake, everyone makes them and it’s how we learn. If we’re scared to make mistakes because of a fear of being shamed or ridiculed, we’ll never try anything new. There’s a bit in Ross Mountney’s wonderful book (I’d really recommend if anyone hasn’t read it) A Funny Kind of Education where she talks about something similar happening when her daughter was worried about making a mistake or getting something wrong. It’s something that is so prevalent in schools and I think one of the benefits of home edding is that we’re able to avoid such things which can have a huge impact on a child for the rest of their lives.

    • Thank you! You’re right, it has the knock-on effect of us beating ourselves up for making mistakes when it’s actually important to make mistakes. I’ve noticed a difference between Harry and Joe in that Harry will get annoyed at himself for getting things wrong (this was one of the reasons homework was such a nightmare) whereas Joe just laughs it off or asks for help. It’s going to be interesting to see the differences between them, I think. (Harry went to school from Reception to Year 3. Joe goes to preschool, but won’t be going to school.)

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  3. I recently read an interview with Brené Brown in Psychologies magazine and the thing that really stood out to me was the damage it can do to be too tough and end up shutting down emotionally to differing degrees to avoid being hurt. How often do we hear from parents and teachers that a child struggling with any aspect of school needs to ‘toughen up’ or their problem is ‘they’re a bit soft’? In our case the school said they’d handle a concern we had by making it clear to all the teachers that our child was ‘over sensitive’! She just expected to be treated with fairness and respect, as at home. This links in with the shame aspect too, I was ashamed of being ‘soft’ when I was a child.

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