My Policy on Embarrassing Students: Don't Do It


My policy is simple: Never embarrass a student. If I do embarrass a student, then I apologize. If possible, I apologize immediately. 

I typically embarrass students when I am myself embarrassed. If I feel criticized or judged or pressured or challenged or angry etc., etc., then I will sometimes lose my perspective and redirect the criticism/pressure/challenge/etc. back towards the student. This is a failure on my part; not my students' part. That is to say, I don't think students ever deserve to be embarrassed.

Unfortunately I have a lot of examples of how I have embarrassed students in the past:
  • Earlier in my career if a student excused themselves in the middle of class, I would say something such as, "Have a nice day." But I would say it in a way that communicated my disappointment with their decision to leave. 
  • When students are talking during another student's presentation (or my own presentation), I used to stop class and glare at them or say something like, "I can wait for you to finish" or, "would you like to share that with the rest of us?" And so on. It was my way of saying, "I GET TO DECIDE WHO GETS TO TALK"
  • I sometimes correct a student's understanding without listening to where it's coming from. For example, a student might be trying to share an example of a concept, but I ignore the courage it took for them to share and just correct the information they have shared. There are dozens of ways to handle misinformation without embarrassing a student.
But if I have the awareness and presence of mind to recognize what has happened, then I will apologize. This accomplishes two things: 1) I acknowledge my wrongdoing and thereby uphold my personal integrity; 2) I demonstrate what adults do when they make a mistake, which is to apologize.

Here are a few examples:
  • If I made a snarky comment to a student as they walked out, then I speak with them before or after the class (that they attend). I say something such as, "I am disappointed in my behavior when you left the other day. I think I was insulted that you walked out, but I didn't have to embarrass you like that in front of the class. I'm sorry."
  • If I pick on students who are talking during class, then I ask if they can speak with me at a different time. I explain that I was wrong with how I handled it, but then ask if they have any suggestions for what to do in the future.
  • If I correct a student in class, then I will usually address it the same way. I'll open class by saying, "Yesterday _____ shared their example and I dismissed it without really listening. I'm sorry that I did that. I cannot expect you all to contribute if you have to worry that you will be embarrassed for doing so. I'm sorry."
I have not found that apologizing leads to any sort of classroom coup or anything of the sort. If anything, it builds greater intimacy between the people who are present.