Teachers, Quit Telling Introverts They Should Participate More

a nervous introvert hide behinds a book during class participation

I listened closely as my mom reported back to me what my teachers said at the parent-teacher conference she had just attended. The report was always the same — I was an excellent student, I worked hard, and I didn’t have any behavioral issues. My teachers only had one complaint: I should participate more, because, as they put it, they “wanted other students to benefit from hearing my voice.”

At 8 years old, this led me to start subconsciously internalizing a dangerous message: I was too quiet. However, I did not actively try to change my quiet nature. At that point, I didn’t see the point in trying to speak up more. I was convinced that I didn’t have anything to say that was original enough or important enough that everyone needed to hear.

And frankly, the thought of speaking in front of 30 other people terrified me.

My ‘Problem’ Got Worse and Worse

In middle school, it got worse. We had to do parent-teacher-student conferences which I, the student, had to lead. First, I had to go to all my teachers and talk to them one-on-one about how I was doing and what my strengths and weaknesses were. That was torture enough, but then I had to meet with my parents and advisor and report back, presenting the information my teachers had shared with me. Then we had to discuss how I could improve. For a shy young introvert, the whole ordeal was a total nightmare.

Every teacher I talked to had slight variations on my strengths but always said the same thing for my greatest weakness — I needed to participate more. “Participate” quickly became my least favorite word. At one of these conferences, my advisor set a goal for me — to raise my hand at least once per class. We had about six classes a day, which meant I would have to raise my hand six times a day. I outwardly agreed to give it a try, but inwardly, it seemed impossible. It took a lot for me to raise my hand. For one, I had to be sure I was unequivocally correct.

I felt alone. No one else seemed to have this problem. It appeared easy for my friends to speak up in class. Even students who were shyer than me did not seem to have as much trouble as I did. What was wrong with me?

In high school and college, the pressure to participate intensified. Now my GPA depended on it, because in many classes, there was a participation grade. This grade was the bane of my existence. Even though I did well on tests and papers, my final grade was lower because of my dismal participation scores.

In my senior year of high school, my English teacher did these Socratic seminars in which there was a circle of people on the inside and a circle of people on the outside. If you were on the inside, you had to say something at least three times during the discussion, and someone on the outside kept track of when you talked and what you said. For me, this was a living hell. As much as I tried, I could not be the outgoing, talkative person that all my teachers wanted me to be.

I Finally Embraced My Introversion

In college, I discovered there was a word for who I was: introvert. Introverts are generally independent, thoughtful people who need plenty of alone time and do best in minimally stimulating environments. Many introverts find public speaking to be anxiety-inducing because it’s overstimulating. But most importantly, about 30-50 percent of the population is introverted. That meant I wasn’t alone in my quirks!

Over time, I learned to embrace my introversion and look at it not as a character flaw but rather as a strength. Even my quietness was something that made me unique. Instead of feeling guilty for not speaking as much, I began to appreciate the truly thought-out responses I could give.

I also began to understand both the power and the stigma that come with being an introvert. It took me over 20 years to embrace my introversion, and I didn’t get any help from my teachers growing up. I had some truly wonderful teachers, but that does not negate the pressure they put on me to be someone else. It should not have taken so long for me to accept the most fundamental attribute of myself.

What if, all those years ago, my teachers had taken a different approach? What if, instead of implying that my quietness was “wrong,” my teachers had helped me understand — and embrace — my introversion? And what if, instead of putting impossibly high expectations on me — demanding that I reach a standard that was too far beyond my comfort zone — they had helped me participate in ways that were within my reach?

Stop Trying to Force Introverts to Become Extroverts

To every single teacher out there, from those who teach kindergarteners to college students, there is one thing I beg of you: Do not forget, overlook, or attempt to change your introverted students. I know you have one of the hardest, most under-appreciated jobs, and honestly, I do not know how you do what you do. I also know that there are not enough hours in a day to get everything done.

However, look at the quiet kids in your class and give them the same amount of attention that you give to others. Teach them to embrace who they are, and above all else, do not try to force them to become extroverts. “Participation” means more than just speaking. It’s paying attention when you speak, it’s completing homework and in-class assignments, it’s being on time and prepared for class. It’s also working with and helping the other students in the class.

I’m not saying that you should never try to help your introverted students grow. I’m not saying that you should never challenge them. I’m saying that you should help them participate in ways that work with their quiet nature, rather than against it.

We need to change the misconception that those who are the most outspoken are the most intelligent and engaged. There are many ways to be engaged. The child who does not speak in a large group may feel more comfortable in a small group. Break the class into small groups and give quiet students the chance to speak in a lower-risk situation. Or give them the option to write their thoughts instead of speaking them. There are many ways to accommodate quiet, introverted students without imposing the extroverted norm upon them.

Most important, appreciate your introverted students. Appreciate their strengths and verbalize this to them. Do not let them grow up thinking they are “less than” their extroverted peers. Introverted children are the strong, independent leaders of our future. Celebrate them.

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