Quiet students are not slow communicators, shallow thinkers, or uninterested learners, so stop treating them that way.
Seven years later, and I can barely remember my time in World History as a sophomore in high school: my classmates, the seating chart, the Treaty of Versailles… but one thing I vividly recall is the deafening silence whenever (let’s just call her) Miss M. called on me. I don’t know what’s more embarrassing: the fact that I cried in her class more times than I could count, or my name being number one on her list of “Quiet Students” the entire year.
But let me backtrack a bit.
I am a quiet introvert. I am a highly sensitive person. I overthink. I don’t have as much control over my emotions as they have over me, and I’ve been given a lot of unsolicited advice on how to fix that, along with many other things.
My parents, as much as they love me, have constantly told me that I have “communication issues,” and my ex-teachers, who cared to some degree, saw me as “the quiet girl who won’t even try.” Miss M., being one of those ex-teachers, noticed very early on that I was quieter than the other students, and even acknowledged that she, herself, was an introvert. Her confession gave me comfort, and I let myself believe that her classroom would be a safe haven for all the introverted students like myself.
However, as the year played out, like all things too good to be true, that safe haven I so desired did not exist.
I Was Humiliated to the Point of Tears
Miss M. — bless her soul — had good intentions. But the constant, “What size discussion group are you comfortable with?” and “Class, give Alison a round of applause for her presentation. We know that was hard for her,” and “Alison, speak up. We can’t hear you,” humiliated me to the point of tears.
Needless to say, I didn’t have the space to think, the mental and emotional capacity to focus, nor peers who saw me as anything other than someone who needed help simply speaking loud enough for people to hear.
Because of the environment in Miss M.’s classroom, I continued to form unhealthy ideas about myself and my introversion: one, that I needed to “come out of my shell;” two, that my quiet and observant nature was not just a problem but a weakness; three, that my achievements and contributions were less valuable because I couldn’t communicate as readily or in the same way most people did; and four — well, I could go on about all the things I’ve had to unlearn and am still unlearning to this day, but that isn’t the main reason I share this story.
After all, I’m sure other quiet students have had similar experiences. In fact, Shona Maher, another introvert, tells a story eerily similar to mine.
Quiet Students Are Just as Capable
My desire is to bring awareness, especially to teachers, about how any question, any comment, any classroom activity can make a quiet, introverted, highly sensitive student feel. Making lists of “the quiet students”? Publicly declaring students’ struggles and asking the class for help on their behalf? Suddenly calling on them when you know they need time to think? Watching them during group discussions more than any other student?
In my experience, these things do the exact opposite of the intentions behind them — they discourage instead of encourage, they isolate instead of unite, and they don’t give us introverts the time and space we need to think, observe, process, and articulate. Quiet students are not slow communicators, shallow thinkers, or uninterested learners — in fact, we’re more than capable.
I apologize if I sound harsh. I don’t mean to antagonize teachers; actually, I think teachers are some of the most important and admirable people in the world. But like any other role, there is always room to improve, and how teachers choose to encourage participation and collaboration leaves an impact that goes beyond the classroom. On behalf of all the “quiet kids,” I urge all teachers to keep working on creating a safe space, not just for us, but for all students.
Lastly, to all my often-misunderstood, quiet, and introverted humans, these are some things I’ve learned as I’ve grown up and grown into my own skin. I hope you remember these truths, especially on the hard days.
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To All the Quiet Students
1. It’s okay to be quiet.
For the longest time, I was uncomfortable with my silence. I hated the way I hesitated before answering questions, the awkward pauses when it was my turn to talk — I wanted to escape the overbearing feeling of not being able to say anything. I fought and resisted the quietness that is so natural to me and the way I function. I’m here to tell you: Don’t fight it — just be. It’s okay.
2. Being quiet is a strength.
Just because you’re not speaking up doesn’t mean you aren’t contributing. When you’re being quiet, not only are you observing and listening, you’re also noticing details, considering other angles, and analyzing… and ultimately, when you do speak, you’re able to respond in a thoughtful, sensitive, and genuine way.
3. You know you best.
As a quiet person, it’s easy to let other people speak for you (and over you). I find myself defaulting to other people’s opinions, even when they’re about me. Isn’t that ridiculous? You know yourself and your thoughts and values better than other people do (most of the time), so don’t discount your experiences, insight, and knowledge. It takes practice, but believe in your own impressions and ideas — they’re just as valid and valuable.
4. Quiet isn’t all you are.
I know I’ve used the phrase “quiet person” a lot so far, but let me clarify something: You are so much more than that. Maybe that’s what people first notice about you, and maybe that’s all they notice about you ever, but what other people see isn’t everything you are. You’ve got layers, just like everybody else. Don’t let “quiet” define you.
And lastly, we need you. As the world gets crazier and louder, I truly believe we need more people like you. We need people who take the time to listen and observe, to think before they speak, to notice what other people don’t, and to contribute in the thoughtfully brilliant way that you do.