Public Shame in Education: Some Cultures Use It

This article about a teacher being terminated for supposedly “bullying” a bully made me think about an amusing incident when I was living in Vietnam.

I know nothing about the situation in the article, so I cannot comment whether the school administrators were right or not. However, the contrast in the educational philosophies between the United States and Vietnam are quick stark when you hear what happened to me.

When we were living in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam back in the late 1990s, we enrolled our eldest daughter in a Vietnamese grammar school. (I will have to post photos another day) My blonde-haired daughter was the only foreigner in the whole school. She learned all her subjects in Vietnamese, making lots of friends and becoming proficient in the language.

After several months of daily school activities, we received a note from the teacher that she would be holding a parent-teacher conference and that all parents, with their students were expected to attend.

I showed up to the classroom on a Saturday morning to find everyone there at the same time. We each filed into the room and were asked to sit down in the small desks as the teacher came to the teaching platform and greeted everyone.

Then to my amazement, the conference began. In Vietnam, everyone has a parent-teacher conference at the same time in front of everyone else.

The teacher began going down her list, talking about various students and their strengths and weaknesses. Let me reiterate: IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!

It was fascinating.

And then she came upon the name of one particularly naughty boy. She began to scold his parents because of his lazy attitude and how he wasn’t working hard enough.

This was getting good!

And then she added this: “And Mr. —, your son is doing poorly with his math. Look at Brittany. She is a foreigner. And she is only learning the Vietnamese language, but she is doing better work than your son!”

I gulped. I looked at the father’s face and he beaming with a grin from ear to ear. The other parents were laughing and looking at him, and I just had this awkward feeling in the back of my throat.

Talk about peer pressure! The father kept smiling, and left the scene without making a fuss. But I am sure that that little boy had the whipping of his life when he got home. I’m also sure that his grades and effort dramatically increased from there on out.

Public shame and humiliation is a powerful weapon that a Vietnamese teacher will use. Why? Because a Vietnamese teacher has the power. The teacher has status. The teacher is revered and respected. When the teacher calls someone out, behavior changes will be made.

I’m not sure public shame in America would do any good, but the underlying values and philosophy of the two systems at least should give us reason to think.


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