Encouraging Introverts to Speak Up in School

This story is one of three that we’re featuring on the question of class participation. For other perspectives, see “Participation Penalizes Quiet Learners” and “Class Participation: Let’s Talk About it.”

As a student, I was an eager hand-raiser. I spoke up. I shared my opinions. I wasn’t particularly quiet. Inside, though, I was terrified. I didn’t want to be caught off-guard, forced to share my thoughts to an entire class without having the chance to think through things on my own. For this reason, I developed a strategy. When a teacher first started talking about a particular topic, I’d jot down five of the best questions I could conjure up. I would rehearse them in my head until the words sounded right. This allowed me to speak up without being put on the spot.

If I wasn’t prepared when a teacher called on me, I’d freeze up. I’d shake and sweat, stammering and sputtering over my words. A few kids would mock me, but most students would stare in shock as I struggled. In most cases, the teachers would assume I hadn’t been paying attention, when the truth was I needed to work through my responses alone before sharing my thoughts with the class.

When I became a teacher, I promised myself that I wouldn’t put my students through that same experience. I wouldn’t call on students who didn’t raise their hands. I wouldn’t force a shy student to speak up. I would allow introverts the time to process information and decide on their own terms if they wanted to speak in front of the class.

Then, in my sixth year of teaching, a student challenged this practice. He wrote me a note that read, “Don’t let me get away with being too quiet. Make me talk even if it’s hard for me. You ask loud kids to stop interrupting and blurting out, right? So ask me to speak up, please.”

I realized that choosing to speak up or remain quiet was a complicated issue that required a nuanced solution. There was an inherent tension between respecting a student’s temperament and challenging a student to conquer an uncomfortable task. This is why, although I still don’t grade students for participation, I do require my students to speak up in front of a group.

The Dark Side of Participation Points

In her story for the Atlantic, Jessica Lahey explained her stance on grading students in participation. This is a common practice, but one that I find concerning.

Too often students are criticized for being too loud or too quiet. The ideal is a happy medium that doesn’t square with who students actually are as people. This problem is most obvious when teachers shame the overly social student. However, it’s just as damaging for the quiet student who, when trying to process information internally, is told to “just pay attention” or to “get over” the fear of speaking up. Students internalize the message that being quiet is a problem they need to overcome instead of a unique quality they can embrace.

Pushing for participation

While we must respect student identity, this doesn’t mean introverts should never be challenged. Just as I expect extroverted students to engage in quiet self-reflection, I also require introverted students to speak up in front of the class. Public speaking is a valuable life skill, uncomfortable as it might make certain students feel. That said, I tailor class participation requirements so that introverts and extroverts alike can thrive. Here are a few strategies I use:

  1. I allow students time to prepare, and even rehearse, what they want to say. It isn’t simply a matter of a student being shy or outgoing. Introverted students often need the chance to process their ideas and thoughts before expressing them to a group.
  2. I understand that equity and equality aren’t the same in class discussions. While I require all students to participate at some point, I give students the permission to decide the frequency and timing of participation.
  3. I start with partner or small group discussions before moving into a whole class discussion. This allows introverts to think through the ideas in a safe place before moving toward the whole group.
  4. I explore alternative methods of speaking up. I might allow introverted students to prepare, record, and edit a podcast. Or I’ll let students develop questions for a social media chat.
  5. I recognize that active listening (the kind that quiet students often engage in) is also a vital part of participation.
  6. I let students ease into participation. Many introverts need time to see what the group dynamics are before transitioning into discussion mode. This is why I avoid “ice breakers” at the beginning of the year. Most extroverts have broken the ice the minute they walked through the door, and many of the introverts are perfectly comfortable letting the ice melt slowly. I don’t usually require introverted students to speak up in class until the third or fourth week.
  7. I conference ahead of time with students who are anxious. I affirm their courage in speaking up and allow them to share their frustrations with the situation.
  8. I allow students to be uncomfortable. Even after I help students adapt, I may have some who resent speaking up. Then again, I may have students who hate silence. Nobody said learning was supposed to be comfortable.
  9. I let students decide when they want to speak up. I tell students, “I want you to say something in our discussion.” I let them know what the topic will be ahead of time. When they’re ready, they raise their hands to speak up.
  10. I give them an out. While participation is expected in my class, I will ultimately have a few students who simply refuse to talk in front of a group. I realize, though, that this is not an act of defiance. It is fear. I do what I can to make it safe for students to speak up. However, in the long run, I know that a student can only find his or her voice when motivated by desire and not compulsion.

Ultimately, schools should be adapting the system to student identity rather than requiring students to change who they are to fit the system. By being flexible and providing accommodations, I have attempted to create in my classroom a safe place for introverts to speak up. It doesn’t always work perfectly, and it isn’t always comfortable. I hope, though, that my students feel affirmed in who they are while being challenged to grow.

Share your thoughts.

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  • OMG, there are so many things I want to pick apart but I’ll stick to a few. For starters, public speaking is not life skill, very few people need to do it if at all. Introverts will still yell fire when needed or warn others of the danger ahead. However if they must then give them a topic to focus, something interesting and watch them soar. Many pop stars out there are total introverts. They can play the character on stage but doing interviews rattles their core. Hence their dual identities.

    You say “I start with partner or small group discussions before moving into a whole class discussion. This allows introverts to think through the ideas in a safe place before moving toward the whole group.” – It’s clear you don’t understand the introvert. A small group can be just as or worse than a group setting. But for this introvert no amount of interacting with others is “safe”. It’s just a testament of an introverts patience.

    “I conference ahead of time with students who are anxious. I affirm their courage in speaking up and allow them to share their frustrations with the situation.” – YAY, you just set that introvert into three weeks of mental hell….knowing this is going to happen no matter what, it’s best to just leave the introvert alone because no amount of affirmations will make it all right. You’re just the jerk making me do something I can’t do without it affecting my mental health. That’s how that works for the introvert.

    “While participation is expected in my class, I will ultimately have a few students who simply refuse to talk in front of a group. I realize, though, that this is not an act of defiance. It is fear.”

    It is not FEAR! Your prejudice on this issue lacks any semblance of objectivity.

    Here is what I suggest you do. Leave the kids alone. Let those that want to speak up do so, let the ones that want to smack them because they talk to much channel their feelings in other ways. You are not going to change these kids and fighting what makes them who they are is not effective, I’d wager most of the introverts that you did this too hate you now. I know I remember my first show and tell and how much I hated it…I was in 4th grade.

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  • Realbeale

    This article has helped me gain some perspective as I help my introverted daughter navigate her high school experience. My daughter recently asked me to sign a waiver for an honors social studies class. When I spoke to her teacher about it, the teacher felt that although DD had good grades in the class, she was too quiet and that would lead to lower grades for her as classes required her to share her analysis both in collaborative groups and in presentations. While my daughter is particularly interested in social studies, I’m wondering if she is not being challenged or worse … held back academically across the board because of her temperament. These are some strategies we’ll definitely need to work on.

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  • Tim_atom

    I can definitely familiarize with this article. Even though I was fortunate enough to grow up going to schools that were also flexible with the combination of extroverts and introverts in class rooms, it was college that was (well, still is haha) the toughest. I was home schooled in high school and was very used to learning on my own and knew how hard it was going to be to transition into a different environment. The scariest part for me was that I wasn’t fully aware of what to expect either. However, similar to the student you described, wanted to make an effort to at least be better at coping with the discomfort of having to speak up in a class room (or any group of people). So I basically made an effort to sit in front of the class and stay (try to stay) at least a chapter ahead.

    I will say that although it did help me become more accustomed to uncomfortable social situations, it never eliminated the discomfort. And this is probably one of the traits some of us introverts simply do have to learn to live with. Although I can’t say why the student you described in this article wanted you to make him uncomfortable, I know that for me it was to eventually get better at coping with the anxieties of having my presence scene and heard by groups of people. It did help, and I’ve became friends with a good amount of my professors too.

  • SadiyaP

    As an extreme introvert while growing up, I used to shake in fear when a teacher called on and every student turned towards me. Now as a college student, I still get nervous and shake in fear, and my panic attacks don’t help, but there have been professors who have learned to understand my style of taking my time. It’s not that I don’t have anything to say, it’s just that I don’t know how and when to say it. This article is great in pinpointing on how to create a balance in a classroom so that a student doesn’t feel left out.

  • This sounds exactly like my story. I am a big introvert. As a student I was a keen speaker (not really at school, but at the undergrad and Master’s level), but still fearful and hesitant from inside. Now as a teacher I don’t grade students for speaking, but I do try to encourage them to speak up so that they can overcome their hesitancy. And I do that with a lot of care. I use many of the strategies mentioned in this article. It was nice to read someone having similar experiences as I did.

  • Lara L Spencer-Montano

    im trilled that someone would recognize that not all refusal is defiance. for kids that are introverted with anxiety issues speeches and group projects are a nightmare. many do not realize that the mental angst can result in physical detriment. even though we have had some negative encounters with teachers who refused to even listen let alone understand we have been very lucky and had some wonderful teachers. i wish i could clone them. they gave my daughter the gift of the joy of learning back. a little understanding and flexibility not only means the world to some kids, it it can push their whole attitude toward their education in a positive direction. the classes my daughter thrived in the most were the ones she felt the safest in, so thank you for providing safe leaning environment. there may often not seem like there is an obvious result from it but i guarentee you there are appreciative kids and parents.

  • scott

    I was extremely introverted in school. I sat in the back (and got good grades) and never put up my hand (and got good grades) and utterly despised the teachers who called on you anyway (did I mention I got good grades?) My year was ruined to smithereens by these teachers, who otherwise were very good at what they did. Well, now, I’m a teacher (ha!) for 12 years, and I never chose kids who don’t have their hands up. however, little by little I see the need to at least practice once in a while. I could’ve used some. So I do the same thing as mentioned above…ahead of time, I tell a student a topic and really encourage them to come up with something to say in our class discussion, something short that can be rehearsed. But life is complicated, so it works some of the times in some ways. Still fine tuning. Teaching is such a great outlet…much better than silly parties.