School was officially out. Professional development meetings had begun, and I, a second grade teacher, found myself in a large library, surrounded by dozens of other educators. I had been told to come up with some questions about helping struggling readers.
Suddenly, in mid-thought, I heard the presenter ask, “Does anyone need more time?” I stared at my blank screen with wide eyes. We were 20 minutes into the day, and I’d already fallen behind.
We moved away from sharing what we’d written. The opportunity to contribute my thoughts had passed. For the rest of the day—like always—I struggled to verbalize my thoughts while taking in everything going on around me.
Toward the end of the workshop, everyone was given the opportunity to stand up and share something they’d learned. A look of panic must have crossed my face, because a former teacher of mine looked over at me, smiled, and said, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
I smiled back and laughed. He must have seen that look of panic many times years ago in his middle school classroom.
Suddenly, I was reminded of why I feel so passionate about what I do. As a student, I was almost always the last one to finish and the one who never raised her hand. The one whose face turned red, panicking at the thought of having to produce a response without preparation.
When I was younger, I thought, surely this feeling will go away when I’m older. I love school and learning and people. So what was wrong with me?
Yet at age 25, I am still a quiet, introverted person. I feel misunderstood. I’ve pushed myself out of my comfort zone my entire life. However, as any introvert would, I’ve simultaneously avoided leaving my comfort zone as much as possible. For a long time, I thought I was what everyone else thought I was–weird. Though “weird” is a word that could describe me well, I’m now confident that being quiet isn’t the reason why.
I was on the verge of tears in that workshop because of the amount of overstimulation. This feeling isn’t going away because it is deeply ingrained in my introverted nature.
The Misconception of “Quiet”
As a teacher, “quiet” isn’t something people expect you to be. Most people, in fact, are surprised to find out that I guide 25 little humans in their learning each day. Often I’m asked, “What’s wrong? You’re being awfully quiet.” I respond, “I’m just a quiet person.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be a sufficient answer for most people.
“Quiet” is often synonymous with weakness. It’s an unfortunate misconception. To be quiet is not to be weak, weird, or backward. It does not mean rude, disengaged, or not a team player.
However, for many introverts, “quiet” is mistaken for just that.
Quiet most likely means observing, listening, thinking, and processing. Sadly, others usually do not think this is the case. The person sitting across from them in a meeting or group discussion, not saying anything, may just not have anything to say at the moment. In fact, if you ask that quiet person to quickly develop a response, they may start to panic. Or they may become even quieter due to the pressure.
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Yet, if given time to reflect or prepare, that quiet person may respond differently. As a teacher, I’ve seen many introverted students give thoughtful, intelligent responses—when they are given time. And if the topic is something they’re passionate about, you may wish they’d go back to being quiet.
How I Advocate for Quiet Students
I think back to when I was a quiet student. Teachers told me to “come out of my shell.” At parent/teacher conferences, they told my parents that I needed to participate more. This just further confirmed that I was not “normal.”
But once, I had a teacher who took the time to show me compassion and understanding. She allowed me to be myself. I did not feel pressure to do more or be more. She knew I was participating–in my own quiet way. With an encouraging pat on the back, a kind note on my paper, or a smile from across the room, I knew I was enough. In her class, I was not “weird.” In her class, though I was different, I felt valued. From a young age, I started dreaming of being a caring teacher like her.
Now, as a teacher, I’m passionate about advocating for quiet students. Though the school day is incredibly fast-paced, I do my best to avoid requiring students to give responses without first giving them time to prepare. I make an effort to provide opportunities for my quiet students to lead in the classroom—just as often as my confident, outspoken ones. You’d be pleasantly surprised by their enthusiasm to take on leadership roles.
One particular quiet student in my class was one of my strongest listeners and observers. I knew she had paid close attention and would be great at helping others, so I asked her if she’d be okay with guiding some classmates through a task. She did, but it was obvious that she was out of her comfort zone.
However, as the year went on, her confidence grew. She started to engage with others more on her own. Then one day, another teacher wanted to learn how to do something on the iPad. This same student was one of the first to volunteer to teach her! That never would have happened at the beginning of the year. I hope that in this moment, she was beginning to realize her own quiet strength.
Teachers Should Advocate for Quiet Students
I firmly believe that a large part of where I am today is due to all those caring teachers who saw my quiet strengths. To feel understood and valued is an incredible gift they gave me in the short time I spent with them.
I think about my students who feel they are different, especially my quiet ones. I feel an overwhelming responsibility to help them understand (and maybe, more importantly, to help their peers understand) that it’s okay to be who they are. And I want them to understand that I, too, battle “being quiet” every day.
I love engaging students and watching them grow. But if I can help even one introverted student feel understood and empowered, I will have succeeded.
I recently completed end of the year sheets. This is a sheet that will follow each student to their next teacher. I wrote down grades, test scores, strengths, and areas of needed improvement. As I did this, I especially thought about my quiet students. The ones who spoke no louder than a whisper. The ones who hadn’t always shared, but as the year had gone on, had at least started to halfway raise their hands. They were no longer afraid of being wrong or judged, because our classroom was a safe place. We’d become risk-takers, problem-solvers, and thinkers. We valued each person and the lessons we learned from the mistakes we all made.
Next year, these introverted students will start over. I pray their future teachers will understand the power of their quiet nature. I noted on my end of the year sheets that my quiet students are quiet leaders and should not be overlooked.
As my quiet ones left my classroom on the last day of school, I wished I could protect them from future self-doubt and feelings of being misunderstood. I had to settle for reminding them that being quiet is their superpower—and I hope they never forget that.
These careful listeners, observers, and deep thinkers have the power to make an impact in the classroom and the world. As a teacher, parent, colleague, or friend, what are you doing to understand and value these quiet strengths? What a gift you could give by doing just that.
The next generation of quiet kids can and must be raised to know their own strengths.
–Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
Read this: The Q&A Guide to Understanding Introverts