Teacher Health: Shame Resilience

Feb 04, 2020

Hey there and thanks so much for returning to our little world here at Teach On A Mission for our series on Teacher Health.

For a refresher on why we are chatting about this important topic, be sure to check out Part One on finding balance as a teacher and Part Two on overcoming the pressure of "hustle" in education.

This week, we're back for the conversation, this time continuing the necessity of being candid.  There's no need to complain or what some perceive as only focusing on the negative.  No, that's not our goal or purpose in developing this series.  It's about having the candid and necessary conversations about teacher health so that we can empower teachers and keep them in the classroom longer.

This week I'll be starting back with our weekly Live conversations on Facebook - be sure to check those out on our page.  The drive behind the Facebook lives is that we have the conversations that are so necessary to get teachers in the right mindset, allowing them to stay in the classroom longer.  If you've never joined me live, you'll find that it's an easy spot to grab some takeaways without investing as much as you would in a huge professional development event.  

Let's dive right in to this week's topic all about shame and how to be resilient to it.


It's a word that most cringe at the sound of.

I know I do.

Because behind shame is humiliation.

I've recently done some diving into this topic of shame when I picked up Brené Brown's Daring Greatly.

When I chose this book, I expected it to very much apply to my profession and business, but not to all other aspects of my life, and it certainly does cover the whole sha-bang.

Phew.  So much so that I'm really having to take it one chapter at a time, taking frequent breaks to allow the necessary processing and settling in of concepts.

It dawned on me as I was reading the chapter on shame resilience that shame is very active in education.

Brene Brown tells us that...

"Shame is the fear of disconnection - it's the fear that something we've done or failed to do, an ideal that we've not lived up to, or a goal that we've not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection [pg.69]."

Teacher Shame

In teacher speak, here's what that looks like...

Sandra is a new teacher and is full of fresh, new ideas to apply to her classroom and her department, and she's excited to hit the ground running.  She has innovative ideas to bring to the table, but when she's talked over at the department meeting she thinks "I'm just a new teacher, and couldn't possibly compare to the veterans of my department when it comes to having impact with students."

George is a veteran teacher who takes pride in his years of making impact with students, but when he gets passed up for a collaborative committee, he thinks, "All the young teachers are way better than me, and valued much more; they're just waiting for me to retire."

Monique addresses a student about her passive-aggressive disrespect in class today, when the student proceeds to berate her about how dumb the activity was and why a teacher would waste everyone's time with something so ridiculous.  Shame is when Monique is sitting at her desk later crying, questioning her ability as an educator thinking she'll never get a handle on classroom management or build quality student relationships.

Shame is when a parent screams so loud at an administrator that kids in the cafeteria can hear her calling him every name in the book because she doesn't agree with the consequence the school set out for her child's indiscretion, and the administrator questions "Did I make the right call? I probably won't get support on this because I'm not good at handling these scenarios. I should go back to the classroom.  I'll never make change in this building."

Shame is bringing a stack of papers home to grade, but desperately needing time with your family, so you set them aside only to sit there thinking about how you should be providing quality feedback for your students - they need you.

Shame is being a young, pre-child-of-her-own teacher who has the spare time to get those papers graded within a couple days only to get flack from the older teachers who are parents about being an "overachiever," and setting too high of expectations for the "rest of us."

Shame permeates what we do when we feel we're in a no-win situation.

And many days as an educator can be just that, seemingly no-wins.

It's hard to break away from shame because we are so tied to what we do - we derive so much of our value from what we do, and from doing it well.

Brené Brown tells us that when we attach our self-worth to what we create, in this case the decisions we make and actions we take as teachers, then "everything shame needs to hijack and control your life is in place.  You've handed over your self-worth to what people think [pg. 64]."

And when we hand over our self-worth to what people (in our case students, parents, administrators) then we become even more fragile from what feels like the constant blows of student misbehavior or disrespect, not-so-stellar evaluations from our administration, unachievable expectations from parents and the public, and the general scornful eye on what we do from the collective whole of our society.

With each one of these blows we become more fragile, and more likely to break, and leave the field because we don't have shame resilience in ways that allow us to still be effective and compassionate educators.

 Shame Resilience

I should clarify quickly here that for the most part, shame occurs in our heads.  It may start coming from someone else in our lives - parents, teachers, peers, colleagues.  But we get really good at it all on our own over time.  It's what we feel and perceive as truth after we experience a less than average life scenario.

The shame we have in each of our heads, as Brown explains, is unique to our personalities and our situations, but we all have it, and she calls it our shame gremlins.  In fact we all have multiple gremlins that creep into our thoughts when we are about to take a step that may be out of our comfort zone (like joining a new committee, trying a new technique in class, being evaluated, sharing an idea in a meeting).

In all of this rather grim talk about shame and how prevalent it may be in our teaching lives, we need to shift and focus on what ultimately allows us to become better educators.  Have no doubt, shame resilience allows us to be better educators.  The following steps are inspired by the eloquent words of Brené Brown as well as my experience in the more recent years of my career when dealing with layers of shame is where I found myself quite frequently as I wrestled with my place as a new mom and dedicated teacher.

Be aware of your teacher shame gremlins

The first step in developing crucial shame resilience to our gremlins is by being aware of them in the first place.

I would like to share a paragraph from the book here because it's possibly the best one in the whole book in my opinion and she says it way better than I can.

"With an awareness of shame and strong shame resilience skills, this scenario is completely different.  You still want folks to like, respect, and even admire what you've created, but your self-worth is not on the table.  You know that you are far more than a painting, an innovative idea, an effective pitch, a good sermon, or a high Amazon.com ranking.  Yes, it will be disappointing and difficult if your friends or colleagues don't share your enthusiasm, or if things don't go well, but this effort is about what you do, no who you are.  Regardless of the outcome, you've already dared greatly, and that's totally aligned  with your values; with who you want to be.

When our self-worth isn't on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts [pg. 64]."

Teachers' shame resilience needs to be even stronger than the average person's because when we take risks in our creativity and make innovative moves, kids' education is on the line, and if it doesn't go swimmingly then we hear from all stakeholders involved, and feel the extra layer of failure for our students (especially in the high stakes world of education we find ourselves in today).  We've got to build these skills in teachers, skills that Brené Brown so eloquently describes as our "gremlin ninja warrior" skills.  

When you are approaching a situation where you are taking a risk be aware of the shame gremlins in your head and what they are saying.  And it certainly doesn't have to be a huge risk... have mercy - your entire first year as a teacher felt like one giant risk, everyday!  It could be you're making a change in your classroom policy, a meeting on a new committee you've been assigned to joined, throwing out a new idea at a department meeting, or providing training or professional development for other teachers, approaching the student you've butted heads with for a couple days now, anything. The point is, be aware of what your shame gremlins are doing and saying, then approach them objectively.

Speak it

"Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.  That's why it loves perfectionists - it's so easy to keep us quiet.  If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we've basically cut it off at the keens [pg.58]."

 There are multiple ways to go about "speaking your shame."  

First, recognize your self talk about your role as a teacher.  What are you saying to yourself on a regular basis about your abilities as a teacher?

Do you believe in your capacity to make sound decisions for your classroom and students that gets the ship moving forward in positive ways, or are you ridden with doubt and indecision because you don't trust yourself to know what's best or at least to figure it out?

Do you meet each scenario with the confidence of knowing you'll work it out and come out on the other side a better teacher and person, or do you wallow in wondering if you're cut out for this, thinking teachers are born and you were never born to do this, so what in the world are you doing here?

Talk to yourself as you would talk to a teacher colleague about the sticky spots in your day and in your career.  Have some objectivity around the situations when you are normally hardest on yourself.  Remember you are probably way harder on yourself than you are others, and try to take yourself out of the scenario and talk about it as if you were giving advice to someone else.

Secondly, and this one is more obvious, just talk about it.

In just writing this post, I am writing (not all, but many) about cases of my own shame as a teacher.  It helps me realize the other aspects of my life that I absolutely need to do this... uh, the obvious one being as a mother... because the process is rather cathartic.  And there is something to say for saying some things out loud.  They either make all the more sense, or sound so ridiculous that you kind of have to laugh at yourself.

So what does this look like as a teacher?

It adds to the consistent advice I see and hear from all kinds of teachers that you have to be wise in who you choose to spend your non-teaching-teacher time with.  You know, not sitting with all the negative Nancies in the teacher's lounge.  I would argue that is even more true in this scenario when you're talking about being the most vulnerable you've ever been in your career.

But no need to be super judgey here because the negative Nancies of education, I would bet, are living in their own unspoken shame that either they or no one else gave the time or compassion to fully address.

Sharing your shame is speaking it with others who can know how you feel.  This is why when my husband and I hang out with our friends who are also educators it's next to impossible to NOT talk about our jobs.  It's a chance to get things off our chest and remind ourselves that we are doing this for all the right reasons and we can figure this out.

I hope and pray that you find another teacher or small group of teachers who you can do this with.  

You must be careful that it doesn't become a mosh pit of negativity with no end in sight.  And I say be careful because I've found myself there in multiple conversations.  Even on my own accord... it's a slippery slope so approach with caution.

Focus, rather, on sharing with the intention of using what Brené Brown calls "critical awareness."  Like I described earlier, just being aware of your gremlins is step one.  Try to dig and decipher where those gremlins are coming from and how you might break free of them in the moment.

Not to say you will do this one and never have to do it again - NO.  Shame resilience is something you'll practice for the rest of your career.  So practice, and get good at it now so you can be a more effective, risk-taking, innovative educator sooner rather than later.  Not to mention a less tense and over-stressed one at that.

We truly are stronger together.  And I pray that you can find your #teachertribe.

As a parting gift, I want to give you a visual that will help you work through those shame gremlins, build some resiliency, and, if nothing else, just get you through the tough (albeit internal) moments of teaching.

It's simply a print out that now, looking back, I wish I had had a post-it note with these sayings on it, plastered to my laptop.  A gentle reminder that you truly are here for the right reasons, you will figure this out, this does not define you, and you will come out of this better.

Until next time,


The conversation does not stop here.  I hope that you can join us on Wednesday nights at 8pm, LIVE on Facebook so we can really hash this out together, and maybe work on finding that #teachertribe.  Please come on over, grab your favorite night time beverage, and let's chat.

To keep your internal conversation going even more about ways you can improve your teacher health, please grab my FREE PDF I made just for you called The Teacher Health Reflection Guide, that's jam packed with strategies and tips to get you moving in the right direction.


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