A Conversation that Nudges Students out of Embarrassment

In my previous post, I wrote that insight is essential to overcome embarrassment. Once the student knows that embarrassment is holding them back, they can then make changes to free themselves from it. 

They can, yes. But, it doesn’t always translate to ‘they do.’ 

If you’ve ever taught a bunch of self-conscious middle schoolers, you know that adolescents are perpetually embarrassed about anything and everything. You also know that they don’t just “get over it” when they realize that embarrassment is an impediment to their learning. In that state of biological and emotional upheaval, the rational voice (even when it exists) is drowned in the fear of embarrassment. 

This applies not only to adolescents but to learners of all ages. Children as young as five in India carry embarrassment passed on from their parents and grandparents about their abilities in English. In all schools I’ve taught, the older the students get, they take fewer risks in the writing classroom. 

In this post, I share with you one way in which I gently nudge students to free themselves from the shackles that hold them back. Depending on the circumstance, I have had this conversation in a 1-1 conference as well as a whole-class setting. A whole-class conversation has the additional benefit of showing students that *all* their classmates carry the weight of embarrassment, that they are not alone.

I first draw this (rather unscientific) pie chart of brainpower. I show them that when our mind is exerting enormous effort in preventing embarrassment, very little of its capacity is left for actual learning. Needless to say, the more brainpower we can reserve for actual learning, the more we learn, the faster we learn. I ask the student(s) to draw a pie chart that represents their brain in my class. I also tell them that the chart will look different in different subjects in different classrooms with different teachers in different circumstances.

By this time, I usually have the student’s attention. What follows is what makes them gasp. I explain using the below graph that as time passes, their gaps in subject knowledge and skills keep accumulating because the majority of their brainpower is being used to prevent being “exposed.” The more we don’t know, the more we try to mask our difficulties, the fewer risks we take, and the lesser we learn. These larger gaps in knowledge lead to more and more embarrassment in the future. 

Once students realize that this is a vicious circle, they are ready to discuss solutions. More often than not, I have met students who declare that they will never be embarrassed again. Such sincere but empty promises to themselves only lead to further disappointment and failure. I challenge their promise by asking them whether they have made such a radical decision before, how well it worked, and what problems they might face. 

If it’s appropriate, I offer a solution: the Free Zone. 

A Free Zone is a zone of time and/or space that is free of embarrassment. This is a zone where you give yourself permission to be fearless and maximize your learning. It is where you do not allow outside influences which may not matter in a few years to dictate how much you learn and how well. 

A Free Zone is easier said than done. Many classrooms are not safe enough spaces for students to take such a risk. I encourage students to 

  1. Choose a safe adult, someone who will not humiliate them when they don’t know/perform in class.
  2. Demarcate spaces and times for the Free Zone: a certain desk, a certain classroom, a certain subject period, or a certain hour of the day.
  3. Endeavour to learn with full freedom in this zone. 
Ask that question now. Don’t procrastinate. Let them think you’re dumb. Don’t be afraid of getting scolded. Embrace it if you feel alone. Don’t be scared of losing face. Don’t try to escape the situation. No waiting it out. Don’t hope that you won’t be called on. Respect yourself even if others disrespect you. Don’t take shortcuts. The only way out is through. Be your own best friend. Learn to your fullest potential. 

Together, we chart out how wonderful it can be as we increase Free Zones throughout our days. 

If students choose my class as their Free Zone, I ask them permission to nudge them continually when I sense that they’re holding themselves back. With their consent, my encouragement is no longer uninvited nagging. It’s welcomed and productive. Every day in class, I appreciate and celebrate students who show increased engagement (= more brainpower devoted to learning). I thank students who take risks and voice their struggles. I also make sure that I give them the required support. Nothing’s worse than showing tremendous courage in asking for help to only be left to fend for yourself like before. 

I also schedule reflection times about once a month to discuss how their Free Zone is going. We troubleshoot together and offer suggestions to students who find certain people and situations hard to navigate. 

Lastly, I also tell them that embarrassment exists for a reason. I read out sections from “The Need for Embarrassment” from Thomas Newkirk’s Embarrassment: The Emotional Underlife of Learning. I point out that there are spaces that are unsafe and at times we are better off not being completely honest and vulnerable. Embarrassment is a useful survival mechanism that keeps us safe from mean and harmful people. I encourage them to take a call about their next course of action in a situation after reading the room. This helps them to exercise discretion, and develop the ability to discern harmful situations from learning opportunities instead of having one default mode: I don’t want to be embarrassed.

You can connect with me on Twitter @teachingtenets or on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters.

– Aishwarya

Photo by Basil James on Unsplash

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