Photo of empty school theater seats by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash
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Shame is Not an Effective Teacher

Like everyone else who watched Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on Netflix, I’m obsessed with Samin Nosrat. She was recently interviewed by Sam Sanders on his podcast, It’s Been a Minute, and in it she talks about her first experience eating at a fine dining restaurant. Despite committing what she describes as fine dining newbie mistakes, she distinctly remembers the graciousness of the wait staff and floor manager, who treated her, a nineteen year old young woman who felt so very out of place, with respect and care. She notes how that care made an impact on her and changed the trajectory of her career. Nosrat states that the staff at the restaurant could have shamed her for making dining “mistakes,” but their decision to encourage her exploration of food was an important turning point for her. She makes a statement I’ve blatantly co-opted as the title of this post: “Shame is not an effective teacher,” but care is one.

I’ve written about care before, and it’s something I continue to think about and work towards incorporating in my own work. I like writing about care, but I’m not going to write about that now. Instead I’m going to focus on shame, and how easy it can be to practice (despite best intentions).

I’ve been in the midst of a teaching blitz, as I’m sure many instruction librarians and coordinators have been for the past two months. It’s been nothing but English composition class after Technical Communication class, and it was starting to feel monotonous. I like our curriculum. We’ve worked hard to incorporate different ways for students to learn from each other and share what they learn with the class. In one session, I asked students to volunteer questions they might have about their existing research topics. One student stated their topic and potential question. Great! Participation! Wanting to continue the discussion, I asked: “What kind of information might help you answer that question?” The student answered, “articles?” in a less certain voice. Thinking this was a great opportunity to talk about different kinds of articles, I asked, “What kind of articles?” The student looked down, discomfort clearly written on their face, paused, looked around, and said, “Um, I’m not sure. You’re kind of putting me on the spot here.”


I tried to save face: “It’s ok, we can come back to this and think about it again later.” Then I moved on. I felt badly. I want to encourage questioning and discussion in class, but I don’t want people to feel singled out or shamed or discouraged. Unfortunately that’s what happened. I took one student’s willingness to engage in answering a question and ran it into the ground, rather than encouraging the response they bravely, voluntarily gave.

As class progressed and students had individual time to work on their research projects, I went up to the student and apologized. They still looked a bit uncomfortable but said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s ok”–all while failing to make eye contact with me. I get it. I earned that reaction. I made them feel uncomfortable and they don’t owe it to me to make me feel better about it.

What’s the take away? Do I stop asking probing questions? Do I stop using discussion techniques in class? No. But I do need to be more aware of students’ reactions to my questions and be better about reading their body language, facial expressions, and other cues during class. I also need to think more about what I am hoping to gain from persisting in a particular line of questioning. Is this going to really contribute to what we are learning? Is there another way to get at this point? Is it time to switch focus? Can I build in more opportunities for students to facilitate discussion and ask me, and each other, these kinds of questions? Are there moments when I think I’m being interested that really come across as picky or judgey?

The last thing I intended to do was shame this student, but intent isn’t the same as perception. They felt singled out and put on the spot, and I own that. It impacted our interaction later in class and I wonder how much more helpful I could have been if I’d been more aware of how I was coming across to them. I don’t know what their previous experiences have been in that English class or in previous classes. I don’t know how other teachers have made them feel. I probably won’t ever know the full story of students in the short amount of time I see them for info lit classes, but that doesn’t absolve me from trying to set an inclusive, shame-free tone in class. I’m working on it and continuing to try and do better.

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