Embarrassment in the Language Classroom

“Embarrassment is a true enemy of learning,” writes Thomas Newkirk. embarrassment

I just finished reading Newkirk’s book, Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning. It’s a book about how feelings of embarrassment and shame often hold learners back in the classroom.

In order to learn anything new, we all go through a period of incompetence, which often makes us feel embarrassed—or other related emotions, such as shame, anxiety, or fear of failure. No matter what new skill we’re learning, we’re going to make mistakes. It’s a fact we can’t escape. That’s how learning works.

It’s clear that embarrassment—or the fear of embarrassment—strongly affects students in the classroom. Every time a student speaks up to answer a question in class, they are taking a risk: maybe they’ll give a good answer, maybe they’ll give a bad answer. Maybe their classmates will laugh at them. Maybe their teacher will yell at them. Or if they ask the teacher a question about something they don’t understand, they run the risk that their question is dumb, that their classmates will roll their eyes, or their teacher will get frustrated. Students often figure it’s not worth the risk. So they sit quietly in class and pretend to understand.

Newkirk’s book is written for all teachers (not specifically second/foreign language teachers), but his ideas certainly apply to language classes. In fact, I think language classes are often an even greater source of student embarrassment than other classes. After all, students are learning an entirely new language. The situation is rife with opportunities for embarrassment. Not only might a student say something that is dumb or incorrect in its content, they also worry about making grammatical errors or pronouncing words incorrectly.

In my own teaching context, teaching adult ESL, these effects are very clear. My students are adults who, in their own home countries, functioned easily. But now they’re living in a new country where they are unfamiliar with the language and the culture. They sometimes have intense feelings of shame because they can’t do seemingly simple tasks, like making a doctor’s appointment or reading a train schedule. Some of my students have told me that they are embarrassed to speak English even in front of their own children because their children sometimes correct their mistakes or laugh at them.

And these feelings of embarrassment and shame are not unique to students. Teachers experience them, too. Many of us conjure up an idea of a perfect “superteacher” in our heads, and we compare ourselves to that perfect model. When we inevitably fall short, we feel disappointment, embarrassment, and shame. Our embarrassment sometimes holds us back from collaborating with other teachers, as we think, “My ideas aren’t very good. I don’t have anything to contribute.” And we are reluctant to ask other teachers for help when we need it for fear of looking like a failure.

As Newkirk says, we will never be able to fully escape our feelings of embarrassment. They are an inevitable part of being human. But there are some steps we can take to minimize and manage those feelings. As teachers, we should try our best to minimize the threat of embarrassment that students feel. Newkirk gives several suggestions to teachers, but I’ll just summarize a few of my favorite ideas here, with a focus on how I think they can be applied in a second/foreign language classroom.

Probably the most important factor is creating an open and supportive classroom environment—one where students know that it’s okay to make mistakes and where students feel comfortable asking their teacher (or classmates) for help. Of course, I think all teachers know that this kind of environment is important, but creating it is a lot easier said than done. I remember one of my own high school math teachers who often told us that we should feel free to come in for extra help from her whenever we needed it. However, when I did so, I always felt like she was in a rush or didn’t really want to take the time to help me. After a while, I just stopped coming in for help because I felt like I was bothering her, and I wasn’t really getting the help I wanted anyway. As teachers, we need to make sure that our actions match our words. Simply telling students, “Don’t worry about making mistakes!” or “Come in for extra help anytime!” is not sufficient. We need to show our students that we support them.

To help create this supportive environment, we need to take the time to get to know our students and let them get to know us. Students are much more likely to feel comfortable asking for help when they feel like they know their teacher well. We also need to show our students that it’s okay to make mistakes. We can share stories about times when we messed up, and we can be open and honest about mistakes that we make in teaching the class. When we feel embarrassed, our instinct is often to try to cover it up and pretend it doesn’t exist. We just want to try to forget about it. But talking about our mistakes and our feelings of embarrassment can help us, and it also models for our students how they can deal with failure and embarrassment in healthy ways. Newkirk writes: “Failure or disappointment is less scary if we can name it, share it, and see it as a normal and expected feature of thinking and working” (p. 73).

In my opinion, to create an open and supportive classroom environment, there should not be a strong emphasis on error correction. In the language classroom, correcting students’ errors often raises their affective filter (i.e., their level of anxiety), which often makes them more hesitant to speak. Plus, there is not much research evidence showing that error correction leads to students producing more accurate language. So why make it a focus in class? This is not to say that teachers should never correct students’ errors. There certainly might be times when it is appropriate, but I try not to make it a big focus in my classes (especially with lower-level students). Newkirk also mentions this idea, and he encourages teachers who are giving feedback on students’ written work to focus on the positive qualities of the work, not the negative qualities.

Newkirk references Peter Elbow’s comments on the importance of identifying at least one aspect of a student’s work—whether it’s one sentence, an image, or a detail—and telling the student, “I like this part.” Although “liking” something seems general and vague, in reality, it is, as Newkirk puts it, “a precise tool for helping students to internalize a set of standards, to gain a sense of how writing works” (p. 95).

I know this is an area that I need to work on. When I’m giving students feedback on their writing, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of their work. After all, the negative aspects are what stand out and call our attention. As teachers, it’s our job to help students improve, so we feel like we need to point out their mistakes. But if we instead focus on the positive qualities of our students’ work, we might be able to help them even more. As Newkirk says: “The initial message is not, ‘This is a problem, correct it,’ but ‘This is good, do more of this.’ And I have found that if students believe that I am clearly alert to what is going well, they can listen to observations about what is not” (p. 95).

In addition to error correction and feedback, classroom discussions are another potential source of embarrassment for students. Newkirk encourages teachers to help students feel free to express their ideas without fear of judgment or embarrassment. He makes a distinction between “display questions” and “authentic questions.” “Display questions” are questions in which there is one right answer, and the teacher is testing the student to see if they know the correct answer. On the other hand, “authentic questions” do not have one correct answer. Authentic questions engage students in true communication—like a “real-life” (outside the classroom) conversation. Newkirk argues that the use of authentic questions encourages students to participate in class more. In addition, there is less potential for student embarrassment because students are expressing their own opinions or ideas; there are no wrong answers.

I think there is often a misconception that these kinds of authentic questions are only possible in higher-level language classes. But that’s not true. We can still engage lower-level students in genuine communication—we just do it at a level they can understand, using simple language. The teacher still provides most of the input, and students use whatever language they have—even if it’s just one-word answers—to interact. Here is one example of a conversation that a teacher might have with a lower-level student:

Teacher: It’s snowing today! Do you like the snow?

Student: Yes.

Teacher: So did you go outside today? Did you play in the snow?

 Student: Uh…no. No play. Only walk.

Teacher: Oh, you walked outside? Were you cold outside?

Student: What?

Teacher: Were you cold? Or were you hot?

Student: Oh, cold.

Teacher: Yeah, I think it’s cold, too. I was cold when I went outside this morning.

In this conversation, the student isn’t producing much language, but it is an “authentic” conversation in the sense that the student is expressing their own ideas.

In the book, Newkirk also mentions a few ways in which factors such as race, social class, and gender can sometimes increase a student’s feelings of embarrassment in school. For example, a student from a minority racial group surrounded by white students might be more likely to experience a feeling of being put under a spotlight when participating in class. As I read this, I thought about Grant Boulanger’s research, in which he documented the increase in enrollment in his high school world language program as he began teaching language in a way that aligns better with research on second language acquisition—as he says, “by emphasizing comprehension first, by emphasizing and valuing interpretation of language before asking for production of language, by learning to be our students’ conversation partner, by practicing delivering compelling, comprehensible messages to their eyes and ears.” He found that retention of students increased—not only among the general student population, but also in previously under-represented groups, such as African-American males. Although African-American males previously had a high drop-out rate over the 4-year language program (bolstering some people’s claims that “some people aren’t language-learning material”), his data shows that, when you teach with a focus on providing comprehensible input and fostering genuine communication, all students have a chance to succeed.

I think these findings underscore Newkirk’s point that teaching in more brain-friendly ways can help students to feel more comfortable in class and increases their positive attitudes toward learning. This stands in contrast to some less-effective teaching methods, which leave students feeling embarrassed and discouraged and causes them to think, “I’m just not smart enough,” or “People like me can’t succeed in school,” or “I’m a girl, so I’m just not good at math.”

As I read the book, I found myself wishing that the author gave more clear-cut answers on how to minimize student embarrassment and encourage students to feel comfortable taking risks in class. I wanted him to tell me exactly what I should and shouldn’t do to create the ideal classroom environment. But I know that that feeling comes from my desire to have quick and easy solutions to every problem, which is not always possible—especially when it comes to teaching. Every student is a little different. For example, some students might benefit from a teacher who gives them a little push to speak up in class more, whereas other students might be more resistant to these pushes. But as we get to know our students better and as we work on building a climate of openness and trust in our classrooms, we gradually improve.

As teachers, we’ll mess up sometimes. We’ll make mistakes. And when we make mistakes, we’ll probably experience some of those feelings of embarrassment and shame. But, as Newkirk writes, as long as we’re open and honest about our struggles and are surrounded by people who can help us, we’ll know that our mistakes are just a temporary setback along the path to success. Just as we aim to help our students let go of feelings of embarrassment, we need to do the same thing as teachers. We should recognize our mistakes and insecurities and then push through them to achieve a feeling of self-confidence.

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