Education Opinion

On Shame and ‘Daring Classrooms': We Need to Fix Systems, Not Kids

By Christina Torres — August 04, 2019 5 min read
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“But why is it that our kids need grit, instead of fixing the systems they have to fight?”

I still remember the first time I read this question. I had only done two years in the classroom and, like many, had been swept up on the bandwagon of “grit” and “resillience” education. It felt good to tie the difficulties I had faced as a new teacher to a popular problem: How do I “fix” the kids who had seemed to give up in my classroom? How could I get them to push through the struggles they were facing? All they had to do was want it hard enough, and we could overcome those obstacles, right?

Then, I saw the above question online and it was like I had been punched in the gut.

It hit me that way because I realized how much my own privilege had blinded me on this topic. I am a woman of color, and I also grew up in an affluent area. I had a lot of things in my life that helped me navigate a system not traditionally built for me, so it made sense that if my students simply had the right mindset, they could overcome those things. It wasn’t until later I realized that this is what the hegemony teaches us—that we can pull ourselves up if we just try hard enough.

I needed to learn that the real problem wasn’t my students’ mindsets; the real issue was systemic oppression that had created a world that was built to see them fail, and made it so much harder for them to find success. While I needed to give them the skills to break those systems down, including the endurance to grow from their perceived failures, I also needed to acknowledge that my focus shouldn’t be on “fixing” students. In fact, teaching students that enough “hard work” will help them without acknowledging the very real problems they face is ultimately damaging. Yes, we needed to endure the unjust hand they have been given and the way society teaches them to look at themselves, but the focus is on overcoming the systems, not “fixing” perceptions of what they face. The shift in internal focus and language was huge for me to understand my role as an educator trying to do anti-bias and anti-racist work.

Still, we are always learning. I saw this, too, with some discussions around Brené Brown’s “Daring Classrooms” lesson plans. The lesson plans are designed to provide socio-emotional activities to accompany Brown’s popular book, Dare to Lead. I love Brené Brown. A researcher focused on shame, vulnerability, and empathy, Brown’s work has swept the nation as it talks about the need to question who we allow to shame us and how we reclaim our own narratives. I’ve used her immensely popular TEDxTalk on vulnerability and discussions on empathy in my classroom, and have used her work personally in my life quite a bit. When I saw a few teachers share excitement around the plans, I shared them without reading them and without much thought.

Of course, my students and I deserve better. I saw some conversation online this morning, with much great discussion done by the amazing Kelly Wickham Hurst. A number of teachers pointed out that the lessons, particularly when done without context, could be immensely hurtful and triggering for some students, particularly those who had experienced trauma already. Asking kids to role play behavior based on shame or trauma, or give and take away marbles based on behaviors that might not yet be in their control can feel cruel and do more harm than good.

I realized that not only did I share without reading, but how much of my own mindset around the concept of “work” and “shame” in the classroom was based on my own privilege. I grew up in and now teach at a school where most students don’t face the generational, institutional, and systemic trauma that other communities deal with. It is inherently easier for me to be incredibly vulnerable with my students and communities because I have had and continue to have a lot of support (personally and systemically) that enables me to feel safe when opening up about the trauma I have faced in my life.

That simply isn’t true for all students and all communities. So many of our students are already processing hurt, trauma, and shame in deep, intense ways that not a lot of us understand. To push them into conversations where they have to name and work through their shame and potential trauma in ways that fail to fully honor those stories is very dangerous ground to tread on.

None of that was clearer than when I saw this tweet from Wickham Hurst:

She is talking about a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that Brown often cites, about how only those who also are willing to enter “the arena” with you deserve to critique the work you’re doing. That’s when it hit me: I have spent a life focusing on how to prepare myself and others for the arena without realizing that the fact that we are thrown into battle in the ways we are is unjust. The existence of the “arena” itself connotes a battle where there are winners and losers, where we fight to the death in order to live on to the next day.

Yes, that can be a powerful way for an adult to look at the world, and I might need to prepare for the arena simply to survive, but that’s not the mindset I want to give my students. My focus shouldn’t be simply allowing them to survive the existing system, but on figuring out how we abolish the battle of the arena and get to a place where we are more just and more capable to communicate and collaborate. That will take hard work. It may take us fighting to break down systems and policies that oppress us from that equity. But I care less about preparing for battle than I do about moving toward a space devoid of blood-on-the-ground combat and filled with love instead. For that to happen, that means I have to check my own understandings of shame and trauma, and approach those from a systemic level before I try and “fix” anything about my students.

Should we have critical conversations about shame and vulnerability? Should we be seeking to be courageous in our willingness to connect with each other? Of course. But that cannot and should not happen without acknowledging and first centering on the institutional and societal shame that has been unfortunately embedded into our society, including our kids. Our students are children. They didn’t wake up with shame—people and systems created a world that puts shame on them. We must actively work not to “fix” students, but to uproot and undo the systems that try and shame us, and move toward a world rooted in love and care. That is a battle that I’m willing to wage with my students, moving all of us toward a better world overall.

I am grateful to hear that Brené Brown is open to feedback and working with others to rethink these lessons. I am grateful to the folks who pushed my own thinking here as well, including Kelly Wickham Hurst, Tricia Ebarvia, Lizzie Fortin and Dulce-Marie Flecha.

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The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.