Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

12 Ways to Avoid Student Humiliation

Embarrassing or belittling students may interfere with learning and lead to long-term resentment. Teachers should treat students respectfully and be mindful of their feelings.

March 26, 2015

The need to gain control of students is reaching new levels of desperation. An article in the Washington Post included the following:

Humiliation Is Never OK

My opinion about any form of humiliating students is obvious from the title of the book I co-authored in 2008: Discipline With Dignity.

Last month, however, I was guilty of humiliating a student seriously enough for her to later tell me that it had been the worst moment of her college life. After the shock of hearing her story, I realized that, although I had tried to do her a favor, the way I did it was definitely hurtful. I have relived that moment almost as much as Pete Carroll probably revisited his Super Bowl failure. Did I give my student a metaphorical haircut? This incident, now resolved with a positive outcome, was especially painful for me because I start all my classes by saying, "This is not my class, it's yours," and "I hope to be a role model for you when you become teachers." These two stories -- humiliating haircuts and my personal incident -- are full of cautions. When is it OK to humiliate students? Never.

Many of us can recall a situation when we were humiliated by a teacher. If you close your eyes and recall it, it still has the power to make you cringe. And also for many of us, if we never resolved our feelings with those teachers, we still haven't forgiven them.

Teachers choose to humiliate students for several reasons: to gain control over them, because the teacher is desperate; to frighten other students; or because they're over-compensating for their own lack of confidence. Some teachers actually think they have a right to humiliate a student because the student deserves it. Other teachers think that because students frequently humiliate themselves, especially online, students don't mind being humiliated -- some might even enjoy it.

Prevention and Repair

Many readers of this post are in positions of influencing other teachers, both formally and informally. We all need to use our influence to provide a safe haven for all students regardless of their behavior. Here are a dozen ways to prevent students from humiliation, or to fix the situation should you accidently embarrass a student and want to make things better.

  1. Don't give a student an embarrassing haircut.
  2. Keep communication between you and your students private when talking about behavior or academic progress.
  3. Frequently check with your students that the message they are receiving is the same one that you are sending.
  4. Avoid sarcasm, even if your students might laugh at it. Students often save face by hiding how humiliated they really feel.
  5. Pay close attention to body language. Sometimes what a student is saying is not what he is feeling. If a student shows discomfort, defensiveness, or withdrawal, make sure everything is OK between you.
  6. If you notice any sudden change in a student's behavior, especially indications of withdrawal, find time as quickly as possible to make sure that you have not been hurtful to that student, even unintentionally.
  7. Never write a student's name in a public place.
  8. Do not praise a student for doing a simple task. This only makes her feel that you have low expectations for her.
  9. Call on all students equally. If a student gives a wrong answer, don't say, "Can anybody help him?" Instead, ask the student if he’d like to choose another student to be his consultant. Let him choose his own consultant.
  10. Ask students to tell you (or preferably write you a note) about anything that they might find humiliating or embarrassing in class, and be sure not to do those things with any student that specifically informs you.
  11. Always give students the right to pass when you call upon them in class.
  12. Tell your students a story about a time when you were embarrassed by a teacher, discuss it with them, and listen to their suggestions of what you could have done to resolve the incident. Come up with a class poster called, "When you are embarrassed, you can. . ." and list the best suggestions.

Every student in school deserves the right to feel emotionally safe from embarrassment and humiliation by teachers, by other students -- and by local barbers. When this safety is violated, not only does academic performance suffer, but also students might never be free of the hurt for the rest of their lives.

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  • Classroom Management
  • School Culture
  • Teaching Strategies

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