My family moved from Middleton, Wisconsin to Columbia, Missouri between my fourth and fifth grade years. My new school was built of tan brick, low and long and sixties style, with an enormous playground where during recess you could swing, run, or play ball. I made a friend, and we played chase games at recess. I didn’t play ball; I liked music and dancing. One spring day at the beginning of physical education class, held outdoors on the playground, the teacher appointed two boys to be team captains. We were going to play softball. Each captain took turns choosing a kid to join his team. First they chose the boys, then the girls. Finally, I was the only one left who hadn’t been chosen. The captain whose team I would join by default, said, “That’s OK, you can have her.” I was the one who was not wanted on either team. I wished I could disappear. That moment of shame still makes me cringe for my fifth-grade self.
When I tell this story to my peers today, many remember similar incidents, wincing as they do. Not all of their memories are of the ball field – some are of round robin reading or spelling bees or math facts competitions. All of the memories, however, share the common factor of shame for a lack of skill that was almost entirely out of the child’s control. The shame I felt that day in fifth grade PE made an indelible impression on me. It confirmed that I was not worthy to join in any ball game and that other children would shun me because of my lack of skill. As a ten-year-old, I didn’t question the teacher’s practice, I just felt worthless. However, when I became a teacher, I never forgot that shame, and I became a champion of children who might be lacking skills through no fault of their own.
Many years later, I told my story to a physical education teacher at the school where I worked. I was concerned because I had heard that he let the kids choose their teams for class, and I didn’t want any child to face what I had faced. When he heard my story, he said, “Well, you turned out OK.” He did not see my experience as one the teacher should have prevented. Instead, he believed that my experience in the world of athletic competition not only had not harmed me, but had probably done me good by making me stronger. In some strange way, he thought it was appropriate that my complete lack of ball skills should be pointed out in public. I disagreed, knowing that my experience had been a formative one, but not one that had made me stronger or inspired me to learn better ball skills. In fact, that experience helped close the world of team sports to me permanently. From that day forward, I knew I was the worst at ball skills and shouldn’t even try.
As I reflect on my fifth-grade experience now, I recognize that adults (both teachers and parents) are not in agreement about what is best for children. Some adults think children should be tempered by the school of hard knocks, while some adults think children should be protected from all hurt and disappointment. I think that experiencing some hurt and disappointment is part of growing up, and that we should not protect all children from all hurts, especially if the behavior that results in being hurt or disappointed is within the child’s control. On the other hand, setting up a competitive class activity to demonstrate a child’s lack of skill does not teach the child that skill; it teaches the child to be ashamed.
Teachers wield great power, wittingly or not, for good or evil, whether their students are learning how to play ball or how to read or how to do any number of other things that schools require. Teachers must take responsibility for teaching skills to all children, regardless of each child’s aptitude. All children know that talents are unevenly distributed. It is the teacher’s responsibility to create an environment where those with great talent thrive while learning to help and support those with less talent, not shun or mock them. Teachers’ responsibility for the health and well-being of the students in their care is huge, and most teachers I know take that responsibility deeply to heart. My plea is for teachers to ensure that no lesson of theirs results in a child’s public humiliation for lacking a skill or talent over which they have little or no control. Shaming a child for her lack of skill teaches the wrong lesson. Instead of the child learning that she can master the skill with practice, she will learn that she is not worthy of being part of the group and that she should be ashamed of herself.