How Not to Shame a Student

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By Jeffrey Benson, Educational Leadership author

Benson Never Shame 300x300In my article in the October 2015 issue of Educational Leadership (EL), “How Not to Be a Mountain Troll,” I identify four concepts teachers can use to establish trust and safety with vulnerable students: (1) recognize every student, (2) provide think time, (3) minimize your absolutes, and (4) never shame a student.

Never shaming a student, especially, must be an absolute rule. One situation teachers often face demands a surgical touch: when vulnerable students take the risk to offer answers, and those answers are wrong, how do we avoid shaming them?

There’s a response we can choose that’s genuine and enthusiastic and builds trust. Here’s what it might sound like:

Imagine a vulnerable 4th grade student named Suzie. I ask the class, “Who can tell me the answer to one-half minus one-third?” and (after I provide think time), Suzie raises her hand. When I call on her, she says, “Two-thirds,” which is not the right answer. I don’t reply, “Wrong. Anyone else?” And I don’t let the wrong answer go uncorrected.

I say, “Two-thirds is such an interesting answer! How’d you get that? Most people get one-sixth, and I can help you figure that out later. Right now I’m so interested in what got you to the answer two-thirds. Let me hear.”

I want to hear Suzie unspool her thinking. I want her to know that the first right answer is always what she is thinking. And, as I listen to her review her thinking, I can hear what she did do correctly, praise and reinforce those steps, and gain insight into where her thinking led her astray.

The added bonus of this approach—which never shames students and helps teachers always stay curious—is that you can also use it to learn more when a student answers correctly. Were Suzie to offer the right answer, I could say, “One-sixth is what I got, too! How’d you get to that answer? I am so interested in your thinking. Tell me what you did.”

This shame-free approach works in all content areas and for all ages. Read more about other strategies for building trust and relationships in my article in this month’s EL.

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Jeffrey Benson is an education consultant, coach, and author with many years of experience in K–12 education. He is the author of Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most and Ten Steps to Managing Change in Schools: How do we take initiatives from goals to actions?

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