Quit Making It a Crime to Be Quiet in the Classroom

introvert quiet classroom

Ms. Smith was not quiet nor kind. She was loud and mean. She had a blonde pixie haircut and drove a red Mustang convertible. She had an attitude that said she knew she was cooler than the other fifth grade teachers.

Ms. Smith had favorites, and she had least favorites. I was her absolute least favorite student. I knew this because she made her feelings toward me very clear. She didn’t like that I was the quietest kid in class and often called me out on it. Each month, she rotated Student of the Month between the boys and the girls. We didn’t have many girls in the class, and when she ran out of all the other girls, she just kept picking boys. She never chose me.

I was a sensitive, introverted ten-year-old, and looking back, maybe Ms. Smith thought the tough love approach would help me come out of my shell and gain confidence. It had the opposite effect. I never felt comfortable speaking to her, or speaking up in class. Every day of the fifth grade felt like a reminder of how pathetic I was.

Clearly, if a teacher who other students liked had such a big problem with me, something was wrong.

Growing Up as a Quiet Introvert

Although Ms. Smith was the most vocal about her distaste for my quiet temperament, she wasn’t the first teacher who struggled to understand me, and she wouldn’t be the last. There was the teacher’s aid in second grade who told my mom she was concerned that I walked around by myself at recess and talked to myself too much. There was the third grade teacher who said I was acting “stupid” for not participating more in group projects. And there was the government teacher during my freshman year of high school who loudly announced in class that I seemed like the type of quiet kid who “goes home to build bombs to blow up the school.”

All these memories are deeply ingrained within me because I can remember how much they hurt at the time. I can still feel how those comments made me feel different and lesser than my peers. None of them inspired me to change my behavior and become more outgoing. They only reminded me that I wasn’t good enough, which strengthened my insecurities.

My experiences growing up quiet aren’t all that different from many other introverts. Just like women adapt to being yelled or whistled at in the streets, introverts get used to being reminded that we’re quiet.

The feeling that something may be wrong with us never completely goes away. This can start at home if parents aren’t willing to understand or are set on changing their introverted child. But for many of us, it begins in school.

Introverts in the Classroom

We live in an extroverted world, and our introduction to that world begins in the classroom. Things like group projects, class participation grades, and presentations can be torture for a shy or introverted kid. Active learning classrooms are becoming more and more popular. This classroom design encourages students to get outside their comfort zones and have more group discussions.

I’m a big believer in stepping outside your comfort zone. Maybe this is because I’ve felt like 90 percent of my life has been lived outside those close and comfortable walls. As an introvert who has social anxiety, sometimes even going to a crowded supermarket on a Sunday feels like pushing myself way beyond my comfort zone. And while I agree that there are certainly benefits to encouraging quiet students to engage more, I think many educators and institutions miss the mark on how to go about doing this.

Group projects never gave me the confidence to speak up. Instead, I felt like my voice was drowned out by the louder students. While these discussions energize the extroverted and ambiverted kids, introverts often feel drained and discouraged because they didn’t have the chance to say all that they wanted to say. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain points out that collaboration often leads to groupthink. Quieter students are particularly susceptible to going along with their peers, even when they know the group’s outcome is incorrect.

Another danger of the focus on collaboration and group work is lack of productivity and poorer performance. Cain references several studies that conclude that introverted employees work better in quiet and minimally stimulating environments. Introverts are happier, and therefore perform better, when they have the choice to work alone.

When Introversion Is a Crime

Although classroom design and activities impact introverted students, the most significant threat to their growth is the student-teacher relationship. If introverted kids don’t feel comfortable around their teacher — or worse, feel belittled by them — it can have a major impact on their confidence and performance in school.

One issue that threatens the teacher-student relationship is the way we talk about introversion in society and the media. After 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 26 children and staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, the media portrayed him as a highly sensitive, socially anxious, and quiet kid. Lanza avoided attention and was uncomfortable socializing. He was a loner. For many people, this seemed to be reason enough for his actions.

Each time another quiet loner kills someone, we are reminded to watch out for the quiet kids. Despite the fact that several studies show that introverts are less prone to violence than extroverts, many teachers continue to fear for their quieter pupils. Like my high school government teacher, they assume that if you’re quiet, you must be keeping sad, angry, or harmful thoughts to yourself.

How Teachers Can Help Introverted Students

Most introverts don’t want to harm themselves or others. We just want a little space to focus on our work and enjoy living in our own little world.

I was not an unhappy child. I had great friends and family. I could spend hours alone, and I often did quite happily, but I also enjoyed playing games with kids at recess and going to birthday parties. I was quiet, but I was healthy and happy. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me until my teachers began to make me feel like there was. I read even the most well-meaning and indirect comments as, “You’re not normal.”

There are several ways that teachers can recognize their introverted students and make class participation more comfortable. This article offers several excellent suggestions. The most important thing that teachers can do for their introverted students is to understand the definition of introversion and stop viewing it as a flaw the child needs to overcome. Instead, embrace the child’s quiet temperament, engage them in one-on-one discussions, and offer a choice between group and independent work when possible.

Be careful not to talk to the quiet students about their introversion in ways that make them feel less than their peers. Remember that those types of conversations can stick with them for life, and negatively affect their self-confidence. Rather than scolding them for their quiet ways, ask them about their ideas and encourage the talents that make them unique.

A Happy Ending for This Introvert

For me, the sixth grade was much better than the year before. I finally had a teacher, Ms. Bell (most likely an introvert herself), who listened to me and made an effort to get to know me. She encouraged my skills, like writing, and always made sure that I felt included and respected. My self-esteem skyrocketed. And when it was time for her to pick the first Student of the Month for the year, Ms. Bell chose me.

More Resources for Teachers and Students

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Image credit: @leta.land via Twenty20