The time to act is now

Sanjeev Dahal

Sanjeev Dahal

The time to act is now

Rewarding a few students for their academic performance could disempower many students

Shaming of students by teachers in Nepal is prevalent from kindergarten to higher education.

The oldest memories of school shaming that I have is of our English teacher in kindergarten making us cover our faces with our palms while our female classmates lifted their skirts for not putting on underwear! I remember my English teacher in grade five pasting ‘donkey’ on my friend’s back and making him walk around the school for not memorizing tense structures correctly; I was trembling with the fear of shaming in case I could not regurgitate it accurately. Twenty-eight years later, my friend—bedridden due to some sickness—contemplates dropping an MPhil course instead of submitting an assignment dreading that his course teacher might shame him among his colleagues for work not done well, like in an earlier instance. The forms and intensity of shaming might have changed, but shaming within classrooms has been ongoing in educational institutions in our country. In this brief piece, I look at this practice of shaming within academic institutions and its ill impacts.

Shaming within academic institutions comes in different forms; examples include keeping the students outside of the class; scolding a student in front of the class; announcing students’ grades publicly and congratulating the higher scorers while denouncing the ‘low achievers’; scapegoating; rusticating; suspending; mocking and ridiculing. Teasing students because they cannot speak fluent or ‘correct’ Nepali is widespread in Nepali academic institutions; most students with a first language other than Nepali are victims of such shaming.

Ranking students’ academic performance and public announcement of ranks and grades are such normalized practices in Nepal’s educational institutions that we seldom reflect on their negative psychological impacts. We should consider that rewarding a few students for their academic performance could disempower many students.

Another common but overlooked shaming practice within academic institutions in Nepal is categorizing students based on their grades; this is particularly prevalent in schools with multiple sections at the same grade level. Students are assigned to a particular section depending on their grades. Furthermore, students are moved from one section to another, depending on their academic performance. This ‘upgrading’ or ‘downgrading’ profoundly impacts student performance; a notable phenomenon might be the bullying of a downgraded student by their classmates. This ‘downgrading’ might instigate a negative downward spiral in the student involving absenteeism from school, withdrawal from classroom engagement, self-isolation and detachment from peers, and loss of self-confidence, among others. Furthermore, shaming could cultivate pessimistic mindsets in students regarding the possibility of their success and the belief that failure is inevitable, causing them to give up before they begin (Bayers and Camfield, 2018).

Shaming and corporal punishment were normalized everyday experiences of students, who went to school two decades ago. Whereas corporal punishment is shunned in schools today, shaming is persistent. Both shaming and punishing are based on the idea that they can effectively change students for the better. A colleague recently shared with me that his four-year-old repeatedly said she would keep her parents in the ‘naughty chair’ for not paying attention to her or not attending to her demands. Intrigued, he went to her daughter’s Montessori school to find out that students, who ‘misbehaved’ in the classroom were temporarily put in the naughty chair. Kindergartens, where a few facilitators deal with many students, generally come up with some form of ‘othering’ a ‘difficult child’ to ‘manage’ the classroom. Since this was a treatment that he was unfamiliar with and worked well  (according to the school administrators), he was unsure how to respond. The ‘naughty chair’ used in this instance represents negative reinforcement by labeling, marking, or branding. The student in the naughty chair was used as an example or symbol of who not to be and therefore separated from the others in the classroom.

Shaming is the worst method of teaching because it manipulates kids’ fear of alienation and stigma; it involves giving up on teaching students and leaves them with only those lessons that can be learned from adult-sanctioned ridicule and mockery (Perry, 2019). Schools are sensitive spaces since children spend the formative years of their lives there; instances of shaming, particularly during the formative years, can have long-lasting negative impacts.

Hence, schools must be careful of their methods to encourage or discourage student behavior, including shaming.

Brene Brown, a shame and vulnerability researcher, contends that shame is an intensely painful feeling or experience of believing one is flawed and therefore unworthy of love. This feeling of unworthiness can be detrimental for children and adults alike. Furthermore, Brown flags that shame does not have prosocial effects, and researchers do not show shame to have any positive outcomes. Brown’s findings indicate that shaming does not work the way schools think it does. Concluding this piece, I contend that shaming within academic institutions must stop.

The author is a faculty of social work at Thames International College, Kathmandu. [email protected]

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