As human beings, our ability to learn and grow as individuals, professionals and as a people is unlimited. The very concept of education prevents us from ever being experts and the 'be all and end all' of whatever mysteries and lessons remain for us to uncover. As a mentor once told me, who was (and still trying hard not to be), a lifelong perfectionist, 'Raelene if you are a perfectionist, how can you ever contemplate being a meaningful educator'? It took me some time to realise, however, he was right. There is nothing more important to understand that as an educator and lifelong learner, I can never know everything and nor should I want to. I need to understand that if I am already the expert at everything, there is nothing left for me to learn.
As a lifelong educator who has been 'teaching' in one way or another since my teens, not only have I had the opportunity to see the beauty in helping others grow, but I've also had the sadness of watching as people expose their vulnerabilities and in the eyes of some, achieve nothing but failure. In an attempt to grow, not only have they felt humiliated, shamed and embarrassed by those closest to them, by their peers, by their teachers, by their own communities but the shame associated with failure impedes their capacity to grow and risk failure again.
Aristotle believed that ethics was related to what should or should not be done in relation to the things that are good or bad for an individual. He also said “we are not studying in order to know what virtue is, but to become good, for otherwise there would be no profit in it.” In other words, we have to “practice” it. Is this not part of the learning journey and thus education? If learning is the act of gaining new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviours and skills, is it not therefore that we all expose ourselves to this same vulnerability and risk of failure on a regular basis as we progress through life?
As educators, one of the many secrets to enhancing learning and encouraging growth is to practice positive reinforcement. Even when the demonstration of knowledge or skill was amongst the worst we've ever seen, as educators, we know that it is just as important to share something positive, even when we need to dig deeply to find it. Do you remember the first time you tried to walk (or watched a baby walk for the first time)? Write with a pen? The first time you rode a bike? The first time you went out on a date? The first time you drove a car? Undoubtedly there was an element of awkwardness that dissipated with time. Undoubtedly there were some of your greatest supporters cheering you on and supporting you when all you wanted to do was hide in a hole, embarrassed by the shame of failure or looking silly.
So what changes as we get older? Is it that a fear of failure and shame suddenly appear or were they always there? Why is there a sense of failure and shame when we fail? Why do we feel the need to focus, even sub-consciously on our defects? Why do we judge ourselves? Why do we judge each other? While I don't pretend to know the answers to any of these questions, I do believe that sometimes, we find it easier to hide from our own sense of failure and shame by focussing on that of others. Is this the answer though? As educators, are we really acting ethically? Are we really acting in the best interests of our students, learners and peers? Are we really providing the feedback that is deserved or is it easier to focus on others' weaknesses to reinforce our own feelings of weakness and needing to feel worthy?
The authors of 'How to change your thinking about shame', Hazelden Experts explain that one of the paradoxes of shame based thinking of course is that '...we become prey for perfectionism. Only an error-free performance can ever satisfy the demands imposed by shame-based thinking. Mistakes are disasters and cannot be openly admitted. The paradox is that we cling to perfection while remaining constantly aware of our imperfections.' This suggests therefore that by wanting to be able to achieve such a performance, though knowing we are not capable, when our peers expose themselves without those same fears that we hold, we are more prone to challenge and criticise their weakness and failure as it makes us feel better about ourselves for not attempting such a feat and making a fool of ourselves.
This would therefore reinforce another paradox described by the authors then that we see our self-defeating thoughts as a form of self-protection and a way to escape from shame. In reality, however, we find ourselves even more victimised by shame than ever. In our mind, we relive mistakes over and over again, trying to explain and understand them, hoping to prevent them from ever happening again. In the end, we just feel more sad and fearful. Our shame is reinforced. Our attempts at learning and growing are thwarted and we cease to become the leaders and mentors our students and colleagues need us to be.
Imagine a world where we behave in such a way toward the learners in our classes; Imagine if we shamed and humiliated them when they got something wrong or they didn't perform to their own expectations, let alone ours. Imagine the harm we would be doing to their self worth. If we wouldn't do it to our students, why do we do it to each other? As professionals, is it not our purpose to help others grow and become the people that they want to be, to empower them to have a better future than they could possibly imagine, where our purpose is to leave a legacy and know that we've helped at least one person change their story?
Teachers are role models, they are also life changers. They inspire and encourage us to strive for greatness, to live to our fullest potential and see the best in ourselves. We look to them for advice and guidance. If we can't look to each other for inspiration and encouragement, to help us achieve greatness and become the best that we can be, where else can we go? Are we really educators if our first reaction is to criticise and condemn rather than encourage and support? Are we really lifelong learners and do we really deserve to have the privilege of changing another person's life? If we can't reflect on our own fears, failures and shame, surely it is unethical to hold someone else's future growth in our own hands? What are you afraid of? What is the shame that binds you?