Are You Humiliating Students Without Even Knowing it?

Are You Humiliating Students Without Even Knowing It?Why on earth would you want to do that?”

What? That doesn’t make any sense.”

Where in the world did you get that idea?”

They are comments that roll off the tongue without second thought.

They’re a gut reaction to a private question or idea from a student that we can’t wrap our head around.

It doesn’t make sense to us and we can’t understand how it can possibly make sense to anyone else.

So we blurt out our incredulity.

“Say what? You’ve got to be kidding. No, you can’t bring a dead rat to school!”

And we move on as if nothing happened. We turn away from the student and the moment passes, never considering that how we just reacted may stay with that student for a very long time.

You see, what we may innocently describe as a way to shake a quixotic student into reality is actually one of the most hurtful and humiliating things you can ever do to them.

A Foot Tall

No matter where we’re from, or how worldly, we each carry with us a uniquely subjective point of view. What’s fun or interesting or scary for me (I won’t go on a roller coaster), may not be the same for you.

And in the bustle of the moment, we forget.

We forget that our students represent a kaleidoscope of different perspectives and sensibilities. We forget that their panorama of possibility is as wide as the West Texas plains. We forget that our lifetime of hard knocks can limit our view.

So when Sara asks if she can do her independent reading outside in the snow, we respond in a way that can be more hurtful than even sarcasm or outright belittlement. “Are you serious? Of course not! It’s freezing outside.”

The saddest thing about it is that we may never know. When we respond to what we believe to be a crazy idea with disbelief, it feels perfectly normal.

But the student . . . the student is left feeling about a foot tall.


The humiliation of having an idea dismissed out of hand was brought home for me in a small way this past week. You see, I was on the other end of someone’s incredulity, and it hurt. It really did.

Here’s what happened:

Last week I wrote an article called, “Should Students Raise Their Hand In Small Groups?”—which wasn’t written because there are necessarily so many teachers who require hand-raising during small groups.

The article was written because here at SCM we hear from so many teachers who are struggling with small groups and wondering if they should start requiring students to raise their hand.

So there I was late Saturday morning, a couple hours after I posted the article. I like to check my email about this time every week to gauge the initial response.

Now, the overwhelming number of emails I receive are from readers just saying hello, sharing success stories, or thanking me for the article—which is wonderful, of course.

But it’s only natural to have a few butterflies whenever a new piece of work goes out into the world. I always feel a bit of trepidation when opening those first 8-10 emails.

Wouldn’t you know it, the very first one read:

Who in the world asks students to raise hands in small group?”

There was no greeting and it wasn’t signed. It was just words on a page. But at that moment, it stung. It stung because preposterousness in response to one’s best intentions, inspirations, and perceptions is profoundly deflating.

And the more heart and soul and thought that goes into an idea, the more destructive such reactions can be. It makes the person on the receiving end feel . . . well, stupid.

Really, really stupid.

Wild Wonder

With more than ten years of writing and publishing under my belt, and the well-earned Crocodilian skin that goes with it, I was able to move on quickly. Long term, it affects me nada.

With our impressionable students, however, this is not the case.

Consider that they may have been thinking about their idea for days before gathering the courage to run it by you. They may have been up the night before, flashlight under covers, devising their plan to attach a GoPro camera to a paper airplane.

They may have been relying on the excitement of this one idea to get them through a tough time at home, a lingering unhappiness, or much, much worse.

Our reaction means everything to them.

When you don’t take their ideas, questions, and curiosities seriously, you don’t take them seriously. And every time you dismiss their thinking as foolish, they grow a bit more jaded and demoralized.

Their dreams, which at first seem so close and within their grasp, drift further and further away. Life begins to lose its color.

That isn’t to say that you need always to give your consent or ringing endorsement. It just means that you thoughtfully respect every earnest idea.

It means that you hear them out and protect their dignity. It means that you make your classroom a safe harbor for creativity.

Because encouraging the wild wonder of your students keeps them curious and interested.

Hopeful and open-minded.

Alive and filled with possibility.

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14 Responses to Are You Humiliating Students Without Even Knowing it?

  1. Marcie February 21, 2015 at 10:53 am #

    Thank you for this article. I also want to thank you for the article on hand raising in small groups. It helped clarify for me the difference between a small group and a smaller whole group. I’m at a school in which there was no Reading class for the 6th grade. I felt that this was absurd, and I implemented a reading class (with the support of the administration). I have to admit, this is my first year of working with small groups in a middle grade reading program. I have never seen a small group implemented for this age group. So, I think that it would be pretty incredulous of me to not ask the questions instead of just winging it 🙂 I tell my students all the time, “If you don’t ask, you will never know the answer.”

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

      Thank you, Marcie! I’m glad the article was helpful. I love what you tell your students. It applies to so much in life.


  2. Emma February 21, 2015 at 11:42 am #

    Thank you for this article. Sometimes, when it’s the same student who hasn’t listened, who has messed about behind my back and who frustratingly needs help with EVERYTHING because of their attention span, these harsh words come too easily. Thank you for the reminder to be kind.
    By the way, I liked your last article about the hand raising in small groups. I have a terrible class this year. They are needy, demanding and want to talk all at the same time. Just to keep the rules and boundries the same, I do ask them to raise their hands in small groups. If I didn’t, they would all shout out at the same time and talk when others are talking. So, that person who said “who asks people to raise their hand in small groups?” I do. If you had taught my class, you would too. I will try to train them though, now that I have read your article.
    We shouldn’t judge others, no matter how ludicrous things might sound.

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2015 at 12:02 pm #

      Thank you for your comments and kind words, Emma. I appreciate them.


  3. Carol February 21, 2015 at 12:27 pm #

    I’ve been thinking about this very thing for the past couple of days. I had a student who completed an art project (finally!) and it was a little odd looking. I told her that it was great that she had started & finished a project (I’m a choice-based teacher) but I dismissed to myself it as being simplistic. But, the more I thought about the project over the week, the more I grew to appreciate it. Unfortunately, I am in that school only one day a week and right now we are on vacation so I won’t see the student until the second week of March. I plan on telling the student right away how much I liked the piece after I had time to think about it. But I hope I did not lose the trust of the student when she dared to share her piece with me and I was not as encouraging as I should have been. These moments can be so fleeting, and you are absolutely right that these moments can impact a student more significantly than we can imagine.

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2015 at 12:38 pm #

      Hi Carol,

      Because it shows that you really thought about her piece, your admiration for it may be even more impactful. 🙂


  4. Kathryn February 21, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    Your blog has provided me with incredibly helpful advice! I find not only your ideas and techniques beneficial to my teaching, but I also admire the way you present them in your blog. Your words “We forget that our students represent a kaleidoscope of different perspectives and sensibilities. We forget that their panorama of possibility is as wide as the West Texas plains. We forget that our lifetime of hard knocks can limit our view,” ring so true. Thank you for another great post!

    • Michael Linsin February 21, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

      It’s my pleasure Kathryn! Thank you.


  5. Catherine February 23, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

    I’m stunned that someone would say that to a student to start with! I would rather say, “Wow that’s pretty creative” and inquire as to what steps got them to that point. This way, they could introduce their thought process. Anyone who was thinking along those same lines can see they were not alone in it (does that make sense?)
    I was saying to my daughter the other day how words make an impact. We need to choose them more carefully…what we say and how we say them to people can really make a difference.
    Thank you for a great article! You are inspiring!!

    • Michael Linsin February 23, 2015 at 5:16 pm #

      It’s my pleasure, Catherine! Thank you for the compliment.


  6. Michael Linsin February 23, 2015 at 5:14 pm #

    Hi Cori,

    I’ll be sure and put it on the list of future topics.


  7. Dana January 26, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    Thank you so much for sharing! We need these constant reminders to be careful with our little turkey’s feather feelings. Just the other day I found myself shaming a boy for dropping the restroom pass (clothes pen) into the toilet. My frustration was mounting over a class that was talkative and difficult to engage in a of our project that took more focus and wasn’t immediately rewarding. I doled out judgement to deal with my sense of lack of control. This was not good. It’s so good to step back and consider those small failings to think of a way to handle them in the future. I know I made him feel awful, and I never want to do that to my students.

  8. Sara September 23, 2016 at 4:25 am #

    Hi Michael,
    Thank you so much for this and all the work on this website. Let’s say we slipped and did that: inadvertently made a student feel that way.
    1. Is there a way to make up without taking it overboard? What strategy would you suggest? Is there a need to apologize to the student?

    2. Also, on a broader level, how do we correct incorrect answers Without making them feel 1 foot tall? I notice that some students feel bad if their answer is wrong. How do we correct a student saying 2+2=5 without a) making the student feeling stupid, And b) sounding like 2+2=5 is as valid as 2+2=4.

    Warm regards,

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