Embarrassment And the Emotional Underlife of Learning By Tom Newkirk

Embarrassment by Tom NewkirkOn today’s Heinemann podcast: Embarrassment. 

We’ve all been there. In the dead of night, lying awake, replaying that one moment over and over again in our minds. The daily mistakes we make, both large and small, are part of what make us human, and yet, are often impossible to forgive ourselves for. In his new book, Embarrassment, Tom Newkirk writes, "We perform for ourselves, often the harshest of audiences.”  But how does embarrassment affect our professional lives as teachers, and how does it affect students?  Tom would argue that it is the true enemy of learning, keeping teachers and students alike silent, hesitant, and afraid. So how do we get past our anxiety, our panic, and defensiveness and become more generous to ourselves? How do we teach our students to take the risk of asking for help, or just to raise their hand in the classroom? 

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See below for a full transcript of our conversation.


Tom Newkirk: Well, I wanted to start with, I'll go first, and I almost imagined, you know, like there's some rope swing or something, you know? And I'm going to go off, but then you're gonna go off next …So the idea is that I'll tell a story, and I hope it calls up a story for you.
    And the story I tell is, I'm in first grade, and I'm in rhythm band, which you know cymbals, you had drums and you had sticks, and the idea was you're supposed to create these rhythms, and that's supposed to make you love music, you know, which I still don't get. And so, you know, I was kind of a drifty kid, and they asked if somebody would like to lead the rhythm band, and I raised my hand, and I was probably thinking, "Does somebody want to go to the bathroom?" You know, I probably wasn't even paying attention to the question, but suddenly I had my hand raised, and I find myself walking to the front of this rhythm band, which is a combined first grades, which pretty much everybody I knew, and they hand me the baton, and I didn't know what to do.
    And so I point to the sticks, and they go, "clack clack, clack clack," and I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to change the rhythm. I mean, there was no scaffolding going on, you know, just like, me up there, and so I'm pointing to the sticks and just looking around, and I'm pointing to the sticks, and finally, mercifully, the teacher says, "Well, thank you, Tommy," and lets me go to my seat. But I think that minute and a half that I'm up there, just feeling totally mortified, feeling I don't know what to do, I still feel that …

Tom Newkirk:    And I think we all have moments when we remember those episodes, and so that's how I wanted to start out. And I think that embarrassment and shame and the emotions I'm writing about are something we all share, you know, whether we're teachers or not, whatever we teach, and so I hope that's kind of this big inclusive… club we're all part of, this club of embarrassment.

Brett:    You know, I'm going to channel my inner Don Murray, and you basically just said it, but when you really boil it down, what is this book about?

Tom Newkirk: This book is about the emotions of shame, failure, frustration, disappointment, that we all feel as teachers, and all feel as learners, and we often feel those in silence. We often feel those as if we're the only one feeling them. And I wanted to create a discussion about that. I talk about the emotional under life, and it's kind of like this hidden thing that's hard and that's sometimes painful, that we have to find a way of dealing with because it's part of our human nature. And if you can't deal with it, if you can't deal with failure, if you're haunted by it, if it comes back, if you hold it to yourself, I think that's destructive, and it creates a kind of, I think, unhappiness. And I've felt that, and I've failed to deal with it at times, and I talk about that in the book. And I kind of wanted to bring that out in the open, this thing that's hidden, but to me, it's such a part of my teaching life… and something I really have to deal with.

Brett:    You write extensively about how there's sort of the embarrassment and the shame that we feel as students, as learners, and then there's what we feel as educators. And you really make a point about how it interferes with our learning. Can you explain more about how it interferes with our learning?

Tom Newkirk:    Well, I think it keeps us from trying things, you know, that we anticipate, if I try this and it doesn't work, it's going to be this major problem, wich it often isn't. There's a term that I came across, I think it's either catastrophization or something like that, you know? That if I do this and it doesn't work, it's going to be catastrophe. It's going to be the most awful thing, so you hold back. And in reality … William James says, "Our errors are not such solemn things." And they're not, and so I think it can hold us back from trying things, and then I think it can haunt us if we can't get beyond it. And one of the things I was interested in is talking to great athletes. I talked to some great athletes and the chapters really about that. And I was really interested in how they get beyond failure. And just the team that they have around them to say, "Okay. Move on. Move" So, I think when we hold on to these embarrassing moments, and maybe we're conditioned to hold on, to not forget, that's part of our biology. But I think there's a capacity to move on and to focus on the next thing. And I think that's port of the way I which we deal with embarrassment. If we can't deal with, I think we are limited by it, we're frustrated by it, it makes us cautious. So I think that find ways to deal with it I think are really important. 

Brett:    Let's talk a little bit more about the coaches and the athletes you talked to. You talked two Olympic athletes and a few coaches. And you really, you took a lot away from that, I mean really …

Tom Newkirk:    I loved that.

Brett:    … the coaches especially- well both the athletes and the coaches had two different perspectives. Talk a little bit about what you took away from those conversations.

Tom Newkirk:    One of the things is like some coaches tend to focus on the negative and the one, Tim Churchward, that I talked to says, "To focus on the positive." To say, "Look, you did that. What did it feel like to do that?" Keep trying to do that instead of, "You really screwed up here." And he says sometimes coaches lean toward the negative. And that sounded really consistent with what I've learned from Don Murray about writing, you know? Okay, he wrote this great paragraph, he wrote this great description, "Do more of that." So, that felt right. And I thought it was really interesting how athletes are conditioned to move on, you know. If you let in a goal… and you're still thinking about letting in that goal, you're gonna go ahead and let in the next goal because you're not paying attention to what's happening in front of you. And so I really thought that, particularly when I talked to this one swimmer, she said, "You've really got to clear your mind of what's happened in the past." And she said, "It's like going to church. You just focus on what's happening in that moment." And she even talked about, she was a coach at Stanford, she coached the Stanford Women's Swim Team, which is one of the great college swim teams in the country. And one of the things she did was, she said, "Okay, I would like you to write down something that is on your mind. Something that is troubling you, concerning you, and just write it down." And, so she did a lot of journaling and said I could take that piece of paper and crumple it up and as they walked into practice, they dropped the piece of paper in the wastebasket. Clear your mind and go on… reset. And I really think athletes have to do that and I think we have a lot we can learn from them. 

Brett:    You talk a lot about the language that we use as educators and how important that is. And the questions that we ask and the feedback that we give. How crucial is it that we be mindful of the words we're using, the language we're using, and the feedback we're giving to students?

Tom Newkirk: I think it's absolutely crucial. And I quote Peter Johnston in the book. His book Choice Words is, I think, the Bible, as far as I'm concerned. And I think on of the things that we have to do when we talk to kids, is to give them time. 

    One of the points I make is I think good teaching is never rushed. Maybe not make a lot of generalizations about good teaching, but I'd say that's one. The good teaching never looks rushed. And I think that a lot of the frustration, the shame, the sense of failure that we feel, the sense of not being able to be articulate, to not be able to be smart, is because we are not given enough time. And so my parents were great listeners. They created space and people would come into our house and tell these stories. And the one thing I never realized was, they were helping create those stories… because they were listeners. So I grew up in a family of listeners. And I think at my best I create space and students talk and then suddenly they say things that they can include in their writing that they hadn't about before. And so I think whether it's teaching english, or teaching reading, or whatever response, teaching math, to create space so people can try things and to feel a kind of calm. I think often we feel tense because we feel rushed or maybe an expectation of judgment, but to feel a sense of calm that I have this space in front of me… that I can work this out. Whether it's an algebra problem or a problem in something, you know, not understanding something in reading. But I can kind of figure it out. So for me finding that sense of calm and, if I can, creating that sense of calm and space for students is really important. 

Brett:    I want to talk a little bit more about math. And actually a similarity that I picked up, maybe it was intentional, in the writing …

Tom Newkirk: Maybe.

Brett:    … but you have a chapter devoted to math and the shame and embarrassment that we feel around math. Where we often will say, "I'm not a math person." And you really take us through some math problems. You take us through some algebra. And then immediately next to that chapter, you come out of that chapter and you right into writing a chapter on writing about the embarrassment we feel within our own writing… and how we need to grow out of that. And sort of I'm scared to be a writer, I'm scared to show my writing in public.  And it really seems to me that there's a correlation there between the feeling of not being a math person and, "Oh, I'm not a writer, but I am a writer." And that nervousness. How we can change that narrative and how we can we approach that mindset that we have for both of those?

Tom Newkirk:    Well I think in like the math chapter was really interesting to write 'cause I'm not a math educator. It's like the commercials, you know, "I'm not a math educator but I did sleep at the Holiday Inn Express the night before," you know? The idea of having right answers in math, you know, and you have these tests that have right answers where there's like a book called, Which One Doesn't Belong, where you have multiple shapes and then you have to make arguments, which one is different. And the thing is, as long as you can justify your answers they could all work. So I think to take away the shame of being wrong, because, I mean, in math I would always do part of the problem and then make some mistake and get the answer wrong. And I was wrong, in the sense of being wrong. And I think there might be a parallel in writing that people feel like, "Okay, I'm going to be criticized."

You know, I'm exposing myself. And you have classes where kids, you know, people are always apologizing, "This is not really good…" and I've seen classes where you have to put a quarter or something in jar whenever you did that, which is probably good. And where does that come from?

Where does that come from? And I think if students and writers experience people who do look for what's going well. Katherine Bomer called it the hidden gems, or the not hidden gems. And I think as a writing teacher I'm looking for something to like. And I'm gonna find it. And I'm gonna tell you. And then we're gonna work from there. And then maybe some things that don't work for me, but my antenna are out for something that's working. A sentences, a verb, you know? And I'm gonna tell it to you, or I might read over it and just say, you know, marvel at it with you. And then we can go on. But I think if you've had that experience, and I did, you know, with my father, with Don Murray, with teachers, I think you internalize that voice. And at the end of the book I talk- say, this is about self-generosity. It's about creating a voice, or internalizing a voice, that allows you to see what's going well. And I think often we don't, certainly in writing and math, we have no heard that voice.

Brett:    And even if that last chapter where you're really- You're helping us find that permission for that generosity that we're trying to give ourselves, you cautions us. You write to a certain layer, and I want you to talk a little more about this, how we have to be careful about how much of that generosity we give.

Tom Newkirk: I think I said, it's not being complacent, it's not saying, "Oh, I'm fine. Everything's fine. I don't have to work …" You know. It's a voice that challenges you as well, and say, "Okay, can you do better on this? Take another stab at this. Put it away, take another look at it." So it prods you, you know. I mean, so I talk about generosity, that doesn't just mean just being nice to yourself. I mean, it's gotta pushing yourself, but also in a way that often builds on what's going well.

So it's not a punishing voice. It's, "Okay, what more could you write on this?" Or, "Okay, you say this, but who would disagree with you on this? Why don't you go down that avenue?" So it's generosity, but it's also generative. It pushes you, it prods you, but in a kind of creative way instead of a critical way.

Brett:    One thing that you talk about is students tend to get embarrassed asking for help. And you write about the risk benefit equation. There's sort of two things there, but I wanna really start with how can we shift the risk benefit equation to create more participation in class?

Tom Newkirk:    The traditional way, I ask a question, everybody raises their hand, and then the teacher calls on that person, and that person responds, and then the teacher says, "Oh, good answer." Or, "That's right," or something like that, and then they go on to the next question. I think that's not a productive way for holding discussions. I think you have to find other ways to help students get into the conversation. And I think, particularly with students who are shy, introverted, or, not to equate these, maybe if formulating answers in english is hard for you because english is a second language, you have to find ways of maybe preparing what you're going to say.
    
    And I make the comparison, you know, when I went to France, I'd go into a store, if I could prepare what I was going to say to the shopkeeper I could sound pretty good, you know? And every now and then they'd talk back like I really could, which is a mistake, 'cause I couldn't. But if I could prepare it really helped. So I think, can you find ways of having students enter in where they might write something first and then share it? Or they might talk to somebody first, and then share it. And I love to do things like if everybody's written in class, I'll just like to go around and have everybody say in a sentence or two what they've written. And I might hear all the voices in the class. And I love the experience of hearing everybody's voice in a class, even if it's just for two or three sentences. But it's kind of a safe way in.  And I think, to go back to what I said, talking one on one with a student, do as much as I can to say, "I'm not in a hurry."

Say, you know, say some more about what you've just said. I'm listening, you know? If I can convey that, I think I create a safe and inviting space for them to talk. If I indicate to them that I'm rushed … You know, or that I'm so tired that I'm just talking all the time and not giving you … then I'm not doing my job. So I think there's a number of strategies we can do to .., And I think, again, the right and wrong. You say something and I tell you if what you said is right or wrong. I think that's usually not productive.

Brett:    You even write, just to kind of go off of that, you even write in your teacher evaluations your students to say you've very calm in class. You're a very calm teacher. But you write that there's a lot behind that. That you, in your early days of teaching, you would sort of have this anxiety before you walked into the classroom about what you were going to do and yet it comes off as calm.

Tom Newkirk: I don't know how that happens, unless it just did in my early days. I think right up until the last class I'd be pacing the floor before the class. I think I always found that there's an element of anxiety in teaching. And one of the things that I wanted to do in this book is to show, to show myself as a teacher who was not some kind of an ideal. I mean, I think that we can trapped into this notion that there are these super teachers out there. And they write books on teaching, and everything looks great. And the students write, not only better than your students, they write better than you do. And things just seem to click into place. And one of the things I wanted to- Really, I think, one of the motives for writing the book is saying, "That's not my reality." 

That's not my emotional reality. My emotional reality- My successes are intermittent. I frequently feel frustrated, I somethings feel students don't respond to the, you know, invitations I create. You know, I've always had trouble managing time in a class. Like I'm always done … I always have too much or too little. You know, the end of the class, you know … My emotional reality is up and down, and things. And so I wanted to kind of like write about that because I think you can measure yourself up against the super teacher and you're always going to fall short, and no matter how well you're doing, you're always going to feel like it's not good enough.

Brett:    Really it is important to break that silence, and you address that pretty early on in the book. You say right, almost off the bat, in the first page, "We've gotta break this silence." Why is that so important? And why does the silence exist?

Tom Newkirk:    I think the silence exists because we want to present ourselves as confident. And I tell this story in the book about, you know, not just mid-career, I'd already written a lot, I was a full professor, and I went through a stage, probably two or three years, where I was not a good teacher. I might have been an adequate teacher; I wasn't a total failure. But, you know, there were signs that I wasn't looking forward to going into the classroom, that the classes didn't quite gel, and I was letting that happen. And at some level I knew that, but I didn't get help. I didn't name it, I didn't get help. And help would have been available. And I let that go on. And I think there's that we want to appear confident and if I go to a colleague and say, "Look, could you just come in and see. The class seems a little flat; you know, my class seems a little flat. Could you just come in and see if there's things that you could suggest I might try?"

I never did that, I never did that. And there would have been people that I could have done that with. And I regret that. And, you know, if I could go back I would have … If writing this book just encourages a few teachers who may be struggling to say, "Could you come in and take a look at that? Or I could I come in and take a look at your class and just see how you- I have trouble starting a class. How do you get your classes going?" "My students seem dead at the beginning of class." If you can just kind of have that exchange I think we could become better and happier teachers, because we all have those moment, I think. Nobody has success in every class. I think we all need help. We all need help at some point, and there should be no stigma in getting it. And the more a school can be a culture where you can get that help, and not have it be judgmental, I think we're all gonna be happier. Otherwise, we just kind of suffer in silence, which is what I did and what I regret.

Brett:    You even relate that back to the students very clearly. You show that some students would rather avoid a label or would avoid the social stigma with asking for help then getting the help. Talk a little about what a student is sort of thinking where they'd rather not get help then go through that.

Tom Newkirk:    Well I start that chapter on 'cause I talk about office hours at the university and students not coming in for office hours, and why they didn't. And I started to make a list, and the list gets really long. I mean, obviously to get help you have to, you know, be prepared to ask for help two or three days before the assignments due. Well, okay, that's a limitation. I think there's a sense that if I ask for help people will think I'm not a good student, you know, so I'd rather just tough it out and not asking for help. I think you have to know how to ask for help. You have to think that you're entitled to help. That this something that you should be taking advantage of. And paradoxically, I think, in a sense, the more privileged you are as a student, you know, in terms of your growing up … The more likely you are to think of help as an entitlement, and that's something that's kind of a risky thing to do. So I think there are a lot of barriers to getting help. I think if you make getting help routine, so like, you know, "I want you to come in for a conference every two weeks." Then I think that makes it easier to get help. But I think when you have to initiate, particularly at a college, you know, cross that threshold to my office to see Professor Newkirk with maybe a picture of somehow books on his wall, and, you know, I'm not too intimidating, but I mean it's intimidating maybe for… And I think, also, how to ask for help. I mean, we think of, you know, asking for help as just some automatic thing, but I think there's kind of a convention for asking for help. How do you ask for help? 

And I think if somebody comes in and says, "I'm just lost, I don't know what to do." Well that's not really a good opening move to ask for help. You should have something- You should have made an attempt and tried at something, and then had a more specific question. Just as like somebody comes in a doctor and says, "Hey, I just don't feel good." You know? You know, the doctor would have to work through a bunch of steps just to get to a point where he could be helpful. I think there's conventions on for asking for help.

Brett:    You write about, you talked to a few doctors for the book. You write about how important the question are that get asked. But also you bring this back to the classroom with helping the student name the problem. So how can we be better at helping others get help?

Tom Newkirk:    Yeah. Well, I think maybe we can model ways in which to ask for help. And I think there's certain terms. Like, are you have trouble with your lead? Are you have trouble with developing your topic? You know, there's terms that I think students might need to know to be able to ask for help. Is there a part that's giving you trouble. You know, so you're not just saying, "I'm having trouble." I'm having trouble finding resources, I'm having trouble, you know, justifying this argument, I'm having trouble imaging who would argue against me. So I think there would be kinds of ways of teaching students what kinds of help you need. And there's a language we can teach students about what kinds of help they need. And I think we could probably model the kind of language students might use to get help, otherwise it's kind of like, you know, "Just help me out," which doesn't take you too far.

Brett:    I really felt the portion on empathy was really important.

Tom Newkirk:    Sometimes we talk about empathy as either you have it or you don't have it. Either you're an empathetic person, or you're not. So I think we really have to work to become empathetic, to have a growth mindset. It's something we have to keep working on to be empathetic, because by our nature I think that, we know, you know when somebody violates a rule, like the sound in the library or whatever … Our first instinct is not always to be tolerant. I think we can develop it, but it's not always an automatic thing, I don't think. 

If this book works, it's gonna work because it's going to invite readers to imagine their own situations and their own frustrations, their own difficulties, and to open up a kind of a space for us to talk about when things don't go well, or when we become too hard on ourselves you know? It makes me sad to think that teachers working to hard, and we have the culture, you know, the outside culture in media always saying how schools are failing and this and then, and then you have models of excellence that are almost perfect and unattainable. And so we're working hard and feeling that we're just falling short. And you'd like to have a sense of, we can look at things that are going well, we can be kind to ourselves. Because I think that, you know, maybe we can persevere being harsh on ourselves, but that's not a good way to go, you know?
    So how do you internalize voices for yourself, and how do you become a voice that your students internalize that says, "Okay, we can do this. You can do this; we can take our time. We can try a couple things. We've done this before; we've been in this situation before. We can make it." How do we create that kind of voice in our head? And, like I said, I've been lucky 'cause I've had people who've helped me there. And if this book can kind of encourage people to kind of internalize that voice that's not just saying, "Oh, this is terrible, you're not a good writer. You're not a good math student. You've never been a good math student." You know, to get some other voices going. So if this book can just make a nudge in that direction it's going to have accomplished what I want.


Read a sample chapter from Embarrassment and The Emotional Underlife of Learning. You’ll can find a special interview Tom conducted with himself on why he decided to take on embarrassment. If you’re on Twitter, I invite you to follow Tom @Tom_Newkirk where you can connect with him further on embarrassment. 


tomnewkirkThomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.

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