Shame’s Role in Education

Hans AppelBlog, Differentiate Better, Lead Better, Manage Better


  • The role of shame in education, as told through a specific student case study.
  • A journey through finding what works for kids.
  • Steps to challenge the role of shame in education.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.”  -Brene Brown

This was a tough week for me.  One of my students, we’ll call him Christian, was really struggling with his behavior in class.  The truth is, he’s been struggling everywhere. He’s disrespectful, insubordinate, and non-compliant.  He has severe anxiety and intense difficulty regulating his emotions. Educators in my building are close to being at their breaking point with him.  Trouble seems to find him in the hallway, at lunch time, and even after school. I think a few educators even wish he would move to a different school.  

In the past few months, we’ve had multiple parent meetings that have left his family feeling hopeless and our staff feeling angry.  As frequently happens, students like Christian find themselves placed into lower level classes. This can be because of years of academic and behavior struggles impacting performance on standardized testing.  

All the ‘important’ metrics in the education world suggest that he needs more support, and thus have justified his placement into Tier 3 classes.  And the highly structured, non student-agency environment of these classrooms, and the lack of relevancy have led him to completely check out of school, learning, and life. 

His parents blame our community’s unmet mental health resources, a failed school system, and their son. His teachers have chalked it up to inadequate parent follow through, accountability and a poor attitude from Christian. 

Furthermore, Christian has created a toxic inner dialogue of, “I’m stupid, I”m bad, and I’m worthless.” He has at-risk dropout tattooed all over his soul.

But here’s the thing…I like him. 

Check that, I LOVE THIS KID! Partly, because I’ve worked with Christian from a strengths-based angle. 

My work has never been about what he couldn’t do, it’s always been about what he could do. I’ve never wanted SHAME to be a barrier between us, and certainly not a lens with which to see this incredible young man. 

He’s insightful, funny, and full of introspective rage that he loves channeling into rap music. And he’s good at his passion. I’ve helped him bring to life his self-written song lyrics and watched him excel behind the microphone. 

He can write out poignant words and spit them out over a fresh beat. At home, he’s got all the best equipment to bring his rap vision to life. And yet, for some reason, he enjoys working with this musically challenged 40 year old white guy.  WHY?

No judgement. No fear. No shame. Click To Tweet

No judgement.  No fear. No shame.

As I’ve spent a few restless nights thinking about how to help Christian, my mind has drifted to thoughts like: 

  • What would Michael Earnshaw of Punk Rock Classrooms do to infuse a musical accompaniment to Christian’s education?
  • How might Chad Ostrowski’s grid method empower Christian to be the leader of his own learning? 
  • What mega popular rap artist can I trick into being on an upcoming episode of our award winning culture podcast, interviewed by Christian, of course?

But the biggest question I’ve been wrestling with…

What prevents educators, parents, and even Christian from making the necessary changes that foster success?


Earlier, I wrote that shame wasn’t a barrier between Christian and I.  It’s true. I’m not overtly shaming Christian, so it’s helped him open up during counseling and/or jam sessions.  But sometimes it’s the shame we have for ourselves that creates the biggest obstacles.

“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”  -Brene Brown

You can imagine the stories of shame that Christian’s parents are telling themselves.  I’m sure it’s overwhelming. The shame that his educators feel, as Christian continues to fail on a daily basis, must be exhausting.  But they probably all pale in comparison to the shame that Christian feels about his inability to learn, fit in, and belong.

Just based on some of the negative self-talk I’ve heard from him, I know his shame story is DEBILITATING!  But, I don’t have much control over others’ shameful stories. Instead I’m left with my own.

Confronting our own shame.

If I advocate for systemic and adult changes to benefit Christian, in the way he most needs, I open myself up to criticism.

I was never a classroom teacher, a parent, nor a building administrator.  What do I know about running a classroom? What do I know about dealing with district pressures to conform to poorly designed curriculum? What do I know about trying to manage 750 students in the hallway? Or dealing with a child at home with mental illness? 

Who am I to give advice on stuff that I haven’t directly lived through? 

To borrow a line from Brown: ‘the story I’m telling myself is I’m not enough.’ 

How often does shame prevent me from doing my best work?  I think more often than I’d care to admit.

Educators in an Award Winning Culture are willing to reimagine shame stories as opportunities for SUCCESS STORIES.

In the past few weeks, I’ve started sharing my thoughts with Christian’s stakeholders and some of my fears have become reality.

I’ve pissed off one colleague and left a few others bewildered. 

But the story goes on.

Christian is now in a higher level math class, on a modified hallway passing schedule, and being given time to breathe before jumping into the start of each class period.  He’s also starting a new medication. We’ve begun to infuse his coping strategies, taken directly from therapy, into his classes at school. He even received his first positive phone call home from a teacher.

It’s still early and we’ve got a ton of work to do.  But there’s a glimmer of progress.

There are so many bad habits, negativity, and skepticism that surrounds Christian’s learning, I have to stay brave in my ability to stand-up for this kid’s future.  I also have to be willing to re-examine my own thoughts, practices, and insights into how I can best help Christian.

But I’ll tell you one thing. I’m sleeping better now. Not because Christian had a few good days at school.  But because I’m no longer letting shame have a role in my educational work with this kid.

Want to challenge shame’s role in YOUR work at school?

[scroll down to keep reading]

Review Your Why

Revisiting your why helps you to tease apart the inner dialogues that are getting in the way of you living your why.  If you need help understanding your why, check out Barbara Bray’s new book, “Define Your Why: Own Your Story So You Can Live and Learn On Purpose.”

I was fortunate to contribute to her outstanding book.  Check out chapter 8 for info on my WHY.

I have my WHY posted in my office for me and everyone else to see.  Getting frequent reminders of your purpose helps you prioritize it over some unhelpful shame story. 

Pinpoint Your Shame Story

Start with Brene Brown’s work on shame is a legendary resource.  It’s critical to move past the fear or anxiety and really dig deep on what’s beneath the surface. 

For me, writing helps crystallize my own thinking. It moves me past the point of feeling stuck. Other educators might benefit from visiting with a mentor, PLC, PLN, or loved one. 

The most important thing is to find a safe way to continually ask yourself an important question: BUT WHY DO I FEEL THAT WAY?

I’ve found that when I keep pushing myself with ‘WHY’, I eventually land in the true sea of shame.    

What If I’m Wrong?

What if the shame story I’m telling myself isn’t accurate?  What if the thing I’m most shameful of is actually exactly why I shouldn’t speak up? 

I’m not a parent, teacher, or admin… do I actually have value in offering insights into these worlds?

But my unique 20 year educational journey, training, and expertise might qualify me best to help this student find success. The most successful teams are made up of diverse people and experiences.  Maybe my uniqueness is what the team needs.

What if my shame story is actually my superpower on this team? Perhaps, the thing I’m afraid of is exactly WHY I’m on Christian’s support team. 

Behave Differently

If my shame story is actually my superpower, how could I behave differently TODAY?

Create a plan to try and unleash your strengths by leaning into your vulnerability. It helps to visualize what your actions might be, if your shame story really wasn’t true.  In other words, if I stop telling myself I’m not qualified to help Christian, what might I do or say differently?

Being freed up allows me to get out of my own anxiety and focus on Christian’s needs.  EMPATHY!!    

Monitor and Tweak

As you try and experiment with new self talk, there are still going to be EPIC failures.  It’s critical to see these failures as part of a growth process and not evidence of the accuracy of your shame story. 

When we welcome setbacks and cognitively view them as a necessary part to finding success, educators are able to depersonalize the struggle and avoid creating additional shame stories. 

Armed with a growth mindset, we’re able to make adjustments to students’ plans without getting lost in self loathing.  

The best educators screw up BIG and then LEARN from their mistakes. Check out Jon Harper’s podcast and book: “My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up Fessed Up and Grew” for heartfelt screw-ups by some of the top educators. 

What shame story are you currently telling yourself? What student greatness might that be preventing? What’s one thing you could do this week to begin rewriting that story? 

Most importantly, how might you TEACH BETTER by reframing your own shame story?

About Hans Appel

Hans Appel is an educator, speaker, and writer deeply committed to inspiring the whole child. He’s the author of, Award Winning Culture: Building School-Wide Intentionality and Action Through Character, Excellence, and Community. Additionally, he’s the Director of Culture for the Teach Better Team, co-host of the Award Winning Culture podcast, and the Co-Creator of Award Winning Culture.

Hans is also a member of the Teach Better Speakers Network.