Why We Need to Rethink the Word ‘Quiet’ When It Comes to Introverted Students

A teacher in the classroom

Often, when teachers call students “quiet,” what they really mean is, “there’s a problem.”

Quiet. I’m not sure there is a word which is a greater juxtaposition in education and schools around the world. From the moment a child first walks into a school, they are taught how important it is to be quiet. Line up silently. Walk down the corridor quietly. Complete your task without a noise. Or simply using the sound “Shh” (in my experience there are three types of “Shh — the short, sharp “Shh!”, the long, drawn out “Shhhhhhhhhhhh,” or, my personal favorite, the train, “Shh shh shh shh.”) 

Don’t misunderstand my meaning — the majority of time, schools are noisy and talkative environments. But there is an expectation to be quiet at certain times and students are praised when they achieve this.

However, the moment reports go home or parent conferences are held, the word “quiet” takes on a completely different meaning. It becomes a problem. No longer is it seen as a desirable attribute or a model of good behavior for other pupils, but an area of weakness in the learning journey of a child. It is expected that every child fits into the extroverted model of society. During class, their hands should be raised to contribute their ideas (regardless of their value to the topic), and during breaks they should be loud, energetic, and sociable.

Any child that doesn’t fit this model — a child who prefers to read quietly during breaks or needs time to think before contributing their thoughts — can be viewed as a bit odd, a bit unusual. They are labeled as “quiet.” And introverted children often seem to get the “quiet” label most. I think this is largely because of a lack of understanding of what introversion is in schools and the expectation of children to fit into the extroverted “norm.”

A ‘Quiet’ Child’s Perspective

From personal experience, I know the impact this label can have on a young child. Throughout my school life, my parents would return from meeting the teacher and tell me everything was good — my grades, behavior, etc. — but, “you need to raise your hand more,” or they’d say I am “too quiet” (sound familiar to anyone?). As highlighted by Shona Maher’s article about how teachers should stop telling introverted students they should participate more, I’m certainly not alone in this. Ultimately, it makes you feel as if there is something wrong with you. 

I still remember lessons where it was mandatory for everyone to participate. As it got closer to my turn, my anxiety would spike and I would feel myself shut off from everything going on around me. I’d be listening, but not hearing a word any of my peers were saying, as I was too wrapped up in my own head and emotions to focus on anything else. Hardly an ideal learning environment.  

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A Teacher’s Perspective on the Word ‘Quiet’

On the flip side, I’ve also experienced this moment as a teacher — I have used the word quiet to describe a child. Given what I just wrote in the previous paragraph, you might be thinking, “How can you use that word knowing the impact it can have on an introverted child?” In my defense, it was my first year teaching and my first time meeting with parents. In my experience, despite all the training we had to undergo to become teachers, I don’t recall ever being taught how to conduct meetings with parents. I certainly never had a conversation about the word quiet in this context. Unfortunately, I think that, too often, quiet is viewed as acceptable feedback to parents. After all, we assess children on skills — such as speaking and presenting — and “quiet” is an easy (and lazy) word to use to describe an introverted child.

It Starts With Understanding Our Personalities

Before we even consider written reports or meetings with parents, we need to set the stage in the classroom by allowing the children to explore who they are and develop their understanding of self. For the last few years, I have delivered lessons with this sole purpose in mind, showing them one of my favorite TED Talks (by Scott Schwefel) and asking them to think about which personality color they relate to the most.

For those of you unfamiliar with this talk, there are four categories of personality:

  • Fiery Red (extroverted, bold, and assertive)
  • Sunshine Yellow (extroverted, sociable, and dynamic)
  • Cool Blue (introverted, thoughtful, and precise)
  • Earth Green (introverted, caring, and tranquil)

In summary, Schwefel says that extroverted personalities are more energetic, strong-willed, and enthusiastic, whereas introverted personalities are more cautious, calm, and patient. I love teaching this sequence of lessons each year because it gives my class the opportunity to consider their own personality traits, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it allows them to consider the personalities of those around them, whether at home or at school. And, hopefully, this enables them to understand each other a little better and be more considerate when communicating with one another. 

The children also love guessing the personality of teachers around the school, an activity I find fascinating; they so often label teachers I know to be introverted as one of the extroverted personalities. For myself, my students assume I’m “Sunshine Yellow” (most likely because I’m usually full of energy bouncing around the room)… and they are always surprised when I reveal I consider myself more of a “Cool Blue.”

If you’re an introverted teacher, you can probably relate to how some of the job requires us to be extroverted — from constant collaboration with colleagues in team meetings to being the overly energetic center of attention in a classroom full of students.

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Alternatives to Using ‘Quiet’ to Describe Students

Once children start to think about who they are and their personalities, they are then in a better position to begin to reflect on their learning journey. In my school, reflection is a huge part of the learning process. Therefore, when it comes to the end of a unit here in Italy — which is 6-7 weeks — and reports need to be written, the pupils take on a very active role. They consider a variety of skills, assessing themselves on what they have achieved during the unit. Then they are to write a short paragraph stating what they have enjoyed, done well, and aim to improve in the future. We “quiet ones” know that reflection is an introvert’s superpower and this kind of activity is one that introverted students often thrive in. As a teacher, I then simply read their reflections and respond to them (which I thrive in).

One of the things I love most about this is that it removes comparison between children and allows a child to reflect on their own personal journey. I have had some of the quietest children in my classroom say they have succeeded and improved their speaking and presenting communication skills. Once they have explained why they think this, it’s difficult to disagree with them.  

While they may be quiet in comparison to their extroverted peers, they feel they are loud and boisterous when comparing themselves to their previous selves. Imagine finishing a unit of work and thinking to yourself you’d made great improvements in your speaking skills, only to be told by your teacher you need to speak up and contribute more. It would be soul-destroying. By having our children reflect on their progress and share it with us teachers, we can have conversations (or write reports) which celebrate the small successes and encourage them to continue to improve.  

A further bonus of this approach is the children’s peer feedback. No longer are my introverted pupils being told by their friends to speak up more — because we now know and understand they are introverts. Instead, they are giving each other positive feedback on how they are improving, and their next steps are more specific and achievable than simply saying, “You’re too quiet.”

Introverted students of mine still write targets for themselves related to being quiet in the classroom. However, they never use the word quiet — because they don’t necessarily see themselves as quiet; they just want to improve their communication skills in a specific area. As a teacher, this is excellent feedback I can work with and then support them to improve.  

To simply say a child is “quiet” and they “need to contribute more” is too general and vague.  However, with a specific aim of, for example, being more confident presenting, I can teach strategies to support this area specifically that make it feel more achievable for not only the child, but their parents, as well. So, rather than being overwhelmed by the word quiet or made to feel it is a fault that needs to be corrected, a child is then able to succeed and grow by taking small challenges. This then helps them step outside their comfort zone on their terms.

One of the joys of writing articles like this is it allows me to reflect on my own personal and professional growth. After rereading the above, my big takeaway is how important it is to know — and understand — the pupils I teach, not only academically, but their individual personalities, as well. By giving students the time to reflect, gaining an understanding of who they are, and sharing this, I am rewarded with wonderful students who celebrate all the varieties of personalities in our class. If only more teachers would follow suit.

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