Respecting my introverts

My end-of-term reports for Term 1 have all been submitted, and the school’s proofreaders are busily at work downstairs marking typos and misspellings. As they look over the sixty reports I wrote for my freshman and sophomore English students this term, there is one thing they won’t find: critical comments about students who don’t speak up enough in class.

The influence of Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts has caused me to rethink the reflexive impulse I have to write about quiet students as if there is something wrong with them. Cain makes a distinction between introversion and shyness, and I do worry about young people who suffer from crippling shyness. However, lowering the grade of introverts just because they do not conform to a standard that praises the cocksure and egocentric does not make a lot of sense to me. I do find much that is admirable in the students who are leaders in class discussion, who are brave enough to put their ideas out there without fear of censure, and who take ownership of their learning by seizing every moment. But it is simply not the case that students who are quiet in class are doomed for failure in school or “the real world.” In fact, there is reason to believe that they may be destined for great things.

As I pivot to a new way of thinking about this topic, I still need to find ways to get the introverted students to work on their oral skills. There are many options out there beyond participation in discussions that allow a teacher to assess a student’s ability to contribute in a social context. Small group work, recitations, presentations, and so forth all can serve this purpose. I notice that there seems to be no connection whatsoever between the quality of recitations I see when I ask my students to memorize Macbeth’s “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” speech and my perceptions of which students are introverted or extroverted. In other words, some very quiet students who rarely speak up in class will deliver bold, daring recitations, and some extroverted, “alpha” students will crumble under the pressure and fail to deliver at all.

Susan Cain is the keynote speaker at the upcoming TABS Conference in Washington, DC. I’ll be attending the conference in two weeks, and I look forward to listening to her ideas vis-a-vis the boarding school world. Because of our small class sizes, we tend to put a premium on confident class participation. It may be time to rethink that.

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