Shame

By Nige Armitstead

In this blog, part 1 of a twin blog we will publish next week ‘Circle of Friends’, Nige describes how schools can be catalysts for Shame, the effects shame has on young people and what we as educators can do to help our students.

Read time: 5 mins

Shame

A well-known philosopher said of humans, “…their eye glides over the surface of things and sees ‘forms’”.  The suggestion is that we develop ideas that are heuristics, that is convenient shortcuts for looking at the world.  Then we remake them into ‘truth’ without adequate justification. What I have to say below about shame is certainly of that order, following the beautifully conceived affect theory of Sylvan Tomkins, but perhaps little more than a heuristic for thinking of the way we experience setbacks and loss.  Do bear this in mind, and read on, whilst also trying to figure out without Googling who the philosopher was…

A colleague once described schools as being mental health institutions.  Let’s see…

Anecdote 1:  On her first day at secondary school my daughter briefly waved at her older brother in morning assembly.  At the front stood Mr. B, awaiting his chance to show students that he was the main man. “Oi, you…” at my daughter.  “Stand up.” She stood up. “In assembly, you face the front and you wait in silence!”  All this shouted with increasing and finally ear-splitting volume.  She felt crushed.

Anecdote 2:  A flagship secondary school, no longer requiring an on-site caretaker, had appropriated his bungalow as a specialist unit for children with learning difficulties, ‘The SEN building’,  although more usually referred to as ‘The Bungalow’. One day a student came reluctantly to see me therein. Explaining his discomfort, he told me of the commonly held view: “Students only come here because they’ve got nothing upstairs”.  How crushing for those students.

Anecdote 3:  Recently a friend of mine was telling me of her twelve-year-old son, a beautiful boy with an ethereal spirit but little by way of the social hooks for developing ‘schoolmates’.  The students seem to vary between indifference and hostility towards him. He has consequently found school distressing and demoralising. Recently another boy came up and started chatting with him.  He thought that at last things were changing in his favor as the boy engaged him in friendly conversation. Then the boy suddenly broke off what he was saying and declared, “Anyway, that was a dare that I had to come and speak to you.”  He turned his back and walked off to another group of grinning and laughing students. My friend’s son felt crushed.

The crushing element of these entirely true stories is shame.

Shame is the body affect of submission when something about oneself is about to be or has been lost: a hope; some self-respect; a limb; one’s life.  Perhaps the shame affect is an evolved body strategy for misleading the tiger that has cornered its intended prey in the jungle. The affect involves averting one’s eyes and seeming small:  the muscle tone goes and the body becomes limp. Literally, the head is hung in shame. The affect convulses the mind with the grief and turmoil of loss. We try our hardest to avoid shame. Continual overwhelming shame leads to serious mental health and well-being problems.   That is the danger of shame in schools.

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Shame is likely when: (a) authority over a student is asserted as humiliation of them;  (b) a student’s difficulty with learning becomes a social cost, possibly even a source of ridicule, and; (c) a student is unable to find a way of belonging within a friendship group.  The first of these two sources of shame are more teacher orientated and easily prevented by (a) confronting adults who humiliate students and (b) working with the self-esteem issues of students who need help to learn.   However, the darker workings of the social environment within a school and its failures of inclusion may be difficult to see and less obviously amenable to teacher lead strategies.

In 1901 Charles Horton Cooley, an American sociologist formulated a theory which is generally referred to as ‘The Looking Glass Self’.  At the heart of who we think we are in our ‘self’, that notion that we have of what we are like. Cooley’s suggestion was that we only see our ‘self’ in other people’s reactions to us, as though they are a mirror.  You are funny because other people laugh when you speak. You are worthwhile because other people show you respect. But what are you if other people offer you nothing but a cold shoulder?

In my view failure to belong is the biggest and most devastating cause of shame.  That schools are places where this can happen to some children and young people; subjection to the shame of social indifference and perhaps even cruelty, this most certainly does make them places of potentially crushing impact on a young person’s mental health and well being.  Why would anyone keep returning to such a jungle to confront such a tiger on a daily basis?

So here are five actions for teachers to take:

1]    Educate students about the self: the collection of impressions they have formed of who they are and what they are like.  Discuss how important the esteem is in which they hold their self. Develop a theme that this relies heavily on having friends, in order to get a positive reflection of what their self is like.

2]    Talk with students about the ways in which harm is caused by one person or people to another person.  Develop the theme that a person’s inclusion in a community is their best protection from harm. This is because their friends, in reflecting a positive idea of what their self is like, will help them have the confidence and resilience to rise to challenges and handle difficult situations.

3]    Whenever an issue has arisen between students, examine it with them for the harm generated.  Look carefully for the way in which a part of somebody’s self (and therefore the esteem in which they hold it) has been damaged.  Talk about how they can be helped to recover; how amends can be made. This is essentially the workings of ‘Restorative Justice’, as formulated and written about by Marge Thorsborn.  (Go to http://www.thorsborne.com.au)

4]    Develop the ethic that friendship is a responsibility which we have towards each other.  Liking is an essential way for one person to support another. Just because another person is not easy to like, or is not a naturally fluent social companion, is not a good enough reason to renege on that responsibility. The business of liking other people and offering them friendliness is a required undertaking.  It is the foundation stone of compassion, that greater good which, if we could all master it, would serve humanity well. Teach this.

5]    Lead a ‘circle of friends’ around a child or young person for whom belonging has failed.  After all, that student needs the school to work extremely hard to uphold and honor its guardianship of his or her mental health and well being.

That is the jumping off point for the twin blog to this one, namely “Circle of Friends”.  I hope these thoughts about shame and its destructive power have been helpful to consider, and I urge all teachers to be experts in the workings of shame, and in the skills needed to divest situations of their shame impact on individual students.

As for that philosopher, it was of course Neitzsche!

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Part 2 ‘Circle of Friends’ offers insight into how educators can tackle shame and social exclusion through a circle of friends approach. We will post this blog next week and this will be the first in a short series of blogs centred on mental health

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