4 ways to battle the feeling of ‘shame’ as a teacher

Teachers often face unachievable expectations, leaving them feeling set up to fail, says Jo Steer. Here’s how to combat those feelings

Jo Steer

How to beat shame

Over the past few years, I’ve developed an obsession with shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown.

As such, I find myself both surprisingly well-read on the topic of shame and curious as to how this dangerous emotion plays out within the modern teaching profession. 

First off, let’s be crystal clear about what shame is.

Unlike guilt, which tells us when our actions are at conflict with our core values (which can be useful and productive), shame isn’t useful or productive, and it feels really bad.

Brown defines it as: “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging”.

Shame makes us feel that if we don’t match up to the standards of “good enough”, we may be cast out of our peer group in disgrace. 

Shameful behaviours

Now, consider this definition within the current educational system, whereby teachers are continuously measured – through data, targets, observations, monitoring, scrutiny and so on – and are constantly held accountable to standards of “good enough”; standards that consistently change. 

Worse still, teachers frequently face demands and expectations that are wildly unachievable, leaving many to feel that they’re set up to fail from the start.

Can you see where I’m going here? This is a climate ripe for shame and shaming behaviours.

We see evidence of this throughout educational settings: the lies and cover-ups, the anxiety and depression, the mountain of people working themselves into the ground, desperate to show that they can “keep up” – these are all, in part, behaviours resulting from a deep sense of shame.

How to beat shame

The truth is that we are good enough. It’s the system that isn’t.

But if you’re having trouble seeing that… the following advice might help:

1. Measure yourself against your values, not theirs

Most teachers spend more time thinking about their school’s values than about their own. And yet, our own values are the guiding beliefs and principles that help us to differentiate between right and wrong, and failure.

So what are yours? Take a look at this list of values from Brown, list your top 10 and then whittle those down to your top two. Next, ask yourself: what does it look like if you’re living true to these values?

If your core value is courage, for example, then the fact that you’re falling behind on the marking policy perhaps doesn’t feel like quite such a life or death situation. 

What matters is that you stay true to your values and be honest about what you can and can’t do, protecting your boundaries.

2. Set a daily intention

Once you’re clear on your core values, consider setting an intention – for the day, the speech, the lesson observation or whatever it is you need to get through.

Let’s say you’re worried about an upcoming lesson observation with an overly critical observer. 

Now, imagine that you set a personal goal of really listening during the lesson, keeping a calm tone of voice or simply being “present”. 

Not only does this offer an alternative, positive focus, but even if the lesson goes catastrophically wrong, you’ll have some sense of personal success. It’s a way to win, even alongside apparent “failure”.

3. Don’t give others permission to shame you

Perhaps you’re trying your best, but others are trying to make you feel that you’re not good enough.

If so, these words from Noble Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, may help:

"I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing."

4. Open up to a trusted friend

Finally, shame feeds upon secrecy and silence, so talking about it to a trusted, non-judgemental friend is a sure way of starving it. 

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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Jo Steer

Jo Steer is a former leader now working with schools as a wellbeing consultant

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