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Stone and Fire: A Tale of Two Teachers, Part 2

Unlike Ms. Stone, Ms. Fire is always smiling, except when she is mad. And when she is mad she is disappointed, and surprised. She is surprised to find herself mad, as if every time were the first she has ever felt mad at a student. If I am in the room she will look at me in disbelief, as if she needs another adult to confirm that a student has angered her. Can you believe this, her look says, can you believe a student has made ME mad? It must be serious. And the kids all go silent. The offender is deep in shame and pulls one of the 42 faces of shame, ranging from sullen shame to giggling shame to crying shame. This happens many, many times a day.

All good teachers do this, of course, making their frustration look like the first, the only frustration they have ever felt over the behavior of a child. After school or in private they will laugh about it and say that it is an act, or a trick, but I know better. Good teachers do feel their frustration as if it is the first, the only. If it is a trick, then it is a trick that they play on themselves. Good teachers are surprised when kids do not do what they need to do.

But Ms. Fire takes it a step further and makes that surprise, that real disappointment, personal. I cannot believe that YOU have made me mad, YOU whom I KNOW. She becomes a musician, playing their shame like a violin. What a risky move!

Here is a piece of teacher wisdom that I have heard a few times: Do not make a child feel ashamed. Why? Because 1. It is cruel and 2. It doesn’t work. My experience has certainly borne this out. But Ms. Fire’s method complicates things. Ms. Fire shows me, every time I watch her, that teachers meet children in a territory between confidence and shame. Every lesson is new to the child. He can work toward confidence by practicing the lesson, or he can give in to shame and all of shame’s myriad behaviors.

I would argue that when Ms. Fire makes her disappointment personal, she is showing her student the possibility of shame, and in this way encouraging the child to avoid the path of shame itself.

An example: Richard (a pseudonym, as are all names in these posts) once finished his math test early, and performed very well. He then doodled his name all over the test page. Ms. Fire picked up his test, looked at it, and told him to do it over. Risky move! She told him that he was scribbling all over his own hard work and so insulting himself, and moreover he is always doing things like this.

I watched this interchange with a grimace, but as soon as she was done Richard rewrote the test without a complaint, and he has never since doodled on a math test. So maybe she was showing him the danger of shameful practice. Maybe Ms. Fire’s constant invocation of shame functions in her world as a warning of a constant danger. Her students certainly do not seem ashamed.

Should I apply this strategy in my room? All I can say is that the thought makes me nervous.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.