Search Mobile Navigation


And the Emotional Underlife of Learning

By Thomas Newkirk

In this groundbreaking exploration, Tom Newkirk takes on the "true enemy of learning"--students' (and teachers') fear of embarrassment. How can our fear of embarrassment affect how we learn, how we teach, and how we live?

Special Offer: Save 30% off our list price automatically when you buy 15 or more.


In Stock

List Price: $31.25

Web/School Price: $25.00

eBook + Print Bundle
Full Description

"Why has no one written about this subject before? Every teacher should read this book." Michael G. Thompson, coauthor of Raising Cain

Embarrassment.  None of us escape it.  Especially as kids, in school.  How might our fear of failure, of not living up to expectations, be holding us back?  How can our fear of embarrassment affect how we learn, how we teach, and how we live?

Tom Newkirk argues that this “emotional underlife,” this subterranean domain of emotion, failure, and embarrassment, keeps too many students and teachers silent, hesitant, and afraid. “I am absolutely convinced,” Tom writes, “that embarrassment is not only the true enemy of learning, but of so many other actions we could take to better ourselves.”

In this groundbreaking exploration, Newkirk offers practices and strategies that help kids and teachers alike develop a more resilient approach to embarrassment.  “I contend that if we can take on a topic like embarrassment and shame, we can come to a richer, more honest, more enabling sense of who we are and what we can do,” he explains.  “So let’s do battle. Let’s name and identify the enemy that can haunt our days, disturb our sleep, put barriers up to learning, and drain joy from our lives—and maybe we can also learn how to rearrange some things in our own head so that we can be more generous toward ourselves.”

Additional Resource Information

(click any section below to continue reading)

Author Interviews

Author Tom Newkirk Featured in TV Interview on Embarrassment

Tom Newkirk: On Writing Embarrassment—An Interview with Myself

The Heinemann Podcast with Embarrassment author Tom Newkirk


Part One: Underlife

1. The Emotional Underlife of Learning
2. The Need for Embarrassment
3. Stigma

Part Two: Asking and Receiving

4. “To the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”
5. Soft Hands

Part Three: Embarrassment and the Three R’s

6. Math Shame: Why Are We All on the Outside Looking In?
7. Reading Guilt: The Art and Science of Forgetting
8. Telling a Better Story About Writing

Part Four: Voices
9. Learning to Fail Publicly—What We All Can Learn from Athletes and Coaches
10. What Is This About?

In Depth

I regularly ask people I work with what the greatest impediment to learn­ing is. It’s one of those impossibly large questions, and they normally hesitate a long time to answer, probably annoyed at me. I suspect that they are thinking about some aspect of instruction, or access to instruction, poverty, and racism, something like that. But when I suggest that embarrassment is a likely answer, they usually nod their heads, admitting that it is a least plausible answer. In fact, many of these disadvantages, like racism and poverty, are experienced as ever-present embarrassment or shame—the sense of being an intruder, being unfamiliar with routines that seem second nature to others, fumbling for words and appearing unintelligent.

So a basic question for educators is: how can we create conditions of support so that students can fail publicly without succumbing to embarrassment, or more likely, finding ways to “hide” so they can protect themselves? A related question is: what allows some students to fail publicly and maintain a healthy sense of competence? My hope is that by naming the enemy—embarrassment— we can make some progress on these questions.

Embarrassment is linked to a thesaurus of negative emotions—fear, mortification, self-doubt, regret, humiliation, hesitancy, risk avoidance, chagrin, excessive self-consciousness, and the ever-present imposter complex, that expectation that at any moment we will create the gaffe that exposes us as not belonging. Embarrassment may seem most closely related to shame; it shares that gut feeling of public failure, of not measuring up. But with a crucial difference. Shame would seem to have a moral component. I feel ashamed for being rude, of failing to comfort a friend in distress—in each of these cases I have violated a social ethical norm, and shame is a way society enforces these norms. We can be admonished with, “You should be ashamed” but it would be odd to say, “You should be embarrassed.”

When I began writing this book, I was convinced that my focus was on embar­rassment, but as I wrote I felt the need to use associated words, denoting what psychologists call the “self-conscious emotions”—regret, shame, performance anxiety, and most importantly a deep-rooted fear of being publicly awkward and inept, of failing in front of others, even if that other, that watcher, is a version of ourselves. So while researchers on this topic feel confident that these terms can and should be distinguished, I will see them as interlocking and sometimes interchangeable. Isn’t the fear of performing the anticipation of embarrass­ment? Doesn’t embarrassment, in the moment, easily transmute into shame, even regret—as in the case of the Calvin Klein jeans? Where does one end and the other begin? I will use embarrassment as a primary term that points to this network of self-conscious emotions—an emotional underlife. Although this will be messy at times, I feel it is true to the less compartmentalized emotional reality we all deal with.

This topic affects us all—as teachers, as students, as participants in public life. None of us escapes the fear of performing poorly, ineptly, in public. All of us have done it at some point. We all deal—successfully or not—with the fear of being seen as incompetent, even if the only person who sees this is . . . ourselves.

So let’s do battle, name and identify the enemy that can haunt our days, disturb our sleep, put barriers up to learning, and drain joy from our lives—and maybe we can also learn how to rearrange some things in our own head so that we can be more generous toward ourselves. While embarrassment is only partly about our relationships to others, I am convinced it is primarily about how we relate to ourselves, about the voices in our head that we listen to.



"Embarrassment isn't just Tom Newkirk's best book.  It is one of the best books ever about learning and teaching, insightful and humane about the albatross of self-consciousness and the power of good coaching and self-generosity to help all of us, teachers and kids, ‘reset,’ and keep going."--Nancie Atwell

“With humanity, vulnerability, and his trademark knack for storytelling, Tom does what Tom does best: presciently speak into the deepest needs of our profession. With stories and research ranging from sports to math class, medicine to English class, Tom pulls back the curtain on the shame that so often holds us back and explores how we can all learn to move forward—in our classrooms, in our careers, and in our lives. We will all be quoting from this book for decades.” Rebekah O’Dell, coauthor of Writing with Mentors

“Why has no one written about this subject before?  Every child in school suffers moments of embarrassment and shame, and most children will do everything in their power to avoid such exposure.  In his wise and practical new book, Tom Newkirk mixes personal anecdote, research and the secrets of great teachers to help us understand how children can survive this painful underside to learning.”Michael G. Thompson, coauthor of Raising Cain

“Tom takes us on a journey to identify how embarrassment affects us in and out of the classroom, uncovers why it happens, and most importantly, offers real ways to soothe, mitigate and navigate embarrassment when it pops up in our students as they strive to become their dreams. Reading it, I found myself in tears—the tears of catharsis, of an old pain being seen, of mending. This book has not only made me a better educator, I am pretty sure it has made me a better human being.”Kate Roberts, coauthor of Falling in Love with Close Reading

“Once again, Tom Newkirk has opened the doors to truth, writing of the most vulnerable aspects of learning and teaching in personal, compassionate, and wise ways.  He also offers myriad suggestions, such as ending the anxiety-producing timed practice, for how to make learning and teaching more humane for all.” Katherine Bomer, author of The Journey Is Everything

“In an era of neuro-scientific breakthroughs that some would use to reduce teaching and learning to mechanistic series of inputs and outputs, and in the face of a persistent and perverse fixation on test scores and metrics, Newkirk makes a powerful argument for attending to the human truths of teaching and learning. This will be a book I return to time and time again.” Stephen R. Mahoney, Associate Director, Harvard Teacher Fellows

“I found this book utterly un-put-downable. As a teacher, a human, a mother, and learner, it spoke to my heart and mind. It is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep humanity at the soul of their teaching. The world is better for this book and the gentle hands it teaches us to have with our students, colleagues, and children.” Kristi Mraz, coauthor of A Mindset for Learning

“Thank goodness we have brave educators like Tom Newkirk to pave the way for conversations about shift-in-your-seat topics like embarrassment in school. Tom offers his own indelible stories of shame while inviting us to share ours, and gives us a language for helping our students name and own their vulnerability.” Allison Marchetti, coauthor of Writing with Mentors

“With heart-filled sensitivity, Tom Newkirk awakens us to the embarrassments students experience in classrooms—even with teachers who have the best of intentions. These moments interrupt learning and sometimes deeply mark the learner. The student stories here will pierce you—and they should—while Tom’s wisdom guides us to analyze why these moments are so loaded for students and how we can prevent them. A remarkable book that will be studied for generations.”Penny Kittle, author of Book Love