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12 Ways to Avoid Student Humiliation

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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Yellow dunce cap sitting on a stool in front of a blackboard

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

Three days a week, parents can take their misbehaving kids to A-1 Kutz in Snellville and ask for the "Benjamin Button Special," which Russell Fredrick and his team of barbers are offering -- free of charge -- to parents who want to try a novel form of discipline. The cut involves shaving hair off the child's crown until he begins to resemble a balding senior citizen, inviting that unique brand of adolescent humiliation that can only come from teasing classmates and unwanted attention.

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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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

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LilyAnn Foster's picture

As a future teacher currently in a graduate school program, I really enjoyed reading your suggestions for what not to do in the classroom and how to make your students feel safe. I think that creating an open and inviting classroom where students don't feel scared to share their ideas is extremely important. I am curious to know what methods of classroom management you have implemented in your classroom? I completely agree that the method of "clipping" or "flipping the card" is not only ineffective but embarrassing and disheartening for the student. This method implies that its main function is to embarrass the student so that they do not engage in the behavior again but I feel that many students have the opposite response and will continue to do the "bad" behavior and "flip their card" to show that they don't care and are not embarrassed.

abigail_pollak's picture
Marketing Assistant

Great article, teachers should build up the confidence of their students by avoiding humiliation. "Treat others as you wish to be treated."

Ann Weiss's picture

Excellent article! I am printing this for all my interns in the Alternative Certification Program. Children of all ages (including high school) have tender feelings and the actions of teachers can...and do....have a lasting impact. Please, please, teachers, treat your students as you would your own sons and/or daughters. It matters.

Elsie's picture

Thank you for your wonderful article! I suppose I came upon this from the opposite perspective-- as a student. I'm in my third year of a tight-knit college and a few days ago I was publicly humiliated by a professor I have to work closely with. Do you have any advice on how to forgive and move on/repair that student-teacher relationship as a student? I don't want to harbor hard feelings because of that imposed relationship and the fact that he was a great professor up until then (to give more information, he believed I hadn't progressed enough on a project that in actuality I was working tirelessly on. I froze and didn't defend myself and now the majority of my junior class is avoiding me). I don't want to feel scared and really uncomfortable moving forward into the semester. If you see this and read it, thank you!!

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Design/Broadcast Media teacher

Elsie, I'm so sorry to hear about this, and I commend you for wanting to move forward so that you can continue to work with this professor. Would you feel comfortable talking with him about it? I've learned that in situations like this, the person who has hurt me often doesn't even realize how serious it was. After a conversation about what happened, we're able to move past the incident and get back to work, although with a slightly different relationship. Do you think this is an option?

Christine's picture

I am an instructor at the University level and my kids are in elementary school. My daughters have had no issues with being mistreated. My son, on the other hand, is treated so differently by the same teachers. His biggest crime is that he is very laid back and probably considered lazy. He's quite smart, is a good friend and rarely gets in trouble. But he is humiliated daily for "cutting corners", finishing his work early (he gets it) and for not having neat work "like the smart girls". His work is publicly compared to the "smart girls", when he asks a question about math, he's asked publicly if he's "trying to cut corners again"
. I cannot believe the treatment he gets. I wonder constantly would a university/college or otherwise adult teacher treat adults in this way? I can't imagine doing such a thing, but after reading the comments here I guess it is a tactic of many.

Alex Shevrin's picture
Alex Shevrin
Community college teacher, former school leader, Edutopia community facilitator

Christine, I'm so sorry that's happening to your son. Have you talked to his teachers about this? Must be so hard for him. I agree that it's hard to imagine adults treating each other that way; we should treat children with the respect we afford one another.

Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

"And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise."
This rule will lead the teacher to avoid, so far as possible, making public the faults or errors of a pupil. He will seek to avoid giving reproof or punishment in the presence of others. He will not expel a student until every effort has been put forth for his reformation. But when it becomes evident that the student is receiving no benefit himself, while his defiance or disregard of authority tends to overthrow the government of the school, and his influence is contaminating others, then his expulsion becomes a necessity. Yet with many the disgrace of public expulsion would lead to utter recklessness and ruin. In most cases when removal is unavoidable, the matter need not be made public. By counsel and co-operation with the parents, let the teacher privately arrange for the student's withdrawal.

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