‘Her work is excellent but she’s very quiet.’

I could probably count on my fingers the number of teachers who could easily recall and use my name in the classroom during five years of secondary school. I’m naturally fairly introverted. I enjoy my own company. At school, I was reasonably bright, I worked hard and never got into trouble, and I was really quiet.

A surprising number of teachers describe themselves in similar ways. We throw all of our energy into performing our identities as teachers and some are so brilliant at it that their colleagues are surprised by their more natural demeanours. This is why I think Jamie Thom’s recent book, A Quiet Education: Challenging the Extrovert Ideal In Our Schools, has resonated so deeply with me, and why I wanted to write a blog about working with quiet students.

Our quieter students deserve to be seen, to be heard and to be valued for their contributions whether these are spoken aloud or not, to be valued for their quieter natures, not in spite of them. As Thom says, ‘Our purpose is not to try to engineer or change these personalities; rather it is to provide them with the conditions in which to feel confident to learn and develop.’

Thom’s book is divided into three sections, the first of which and the one I’m focusing on here is ‘Quiet for Students’. Thom describes the types of difficulties that quieter students often face and the practical things we can do to support them to be more confident in our lessons.

Knowing their names

Quieter students describe feeling ‘invisible’ or ‘anonymous’ because others don’t remember their names, and frustrated that their qualities and talents may be undervalued as a result. Knowing names is important – it’s one of the first steps in building positive relationships – and every effort we make to do so doesn’t go unnoticed. It takes no time at all to check the pronunciation of names the first time we see them in the register or to check with students who have names that tend to be shortened whether they want us to do that.

Thom says: ‘Deliberately seeking out quieter students and referring to them by name will help them to see you as someone who cares about them.’ He goes on to suggest strategies we can use to help us to remember names: seating plans – with images from SIMs if that’s helpful; testing yourself; associating each student with a memory or visual cue; repeating names as often as possible; keeping a name checklist so we can see who is absorbing our attention and restore the balance.

Collaboration and noise can be significant features of the school environment

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be at all: we know the value of question and answer, discussion, pair work, reading aloud, using music and video. We use sound and silence as essential teaching tools and classrooms should be rich in dialogue.

For quieter students, these things can be exhausting. They go from lesson to lesson not knowing whether the next one is the one where they will be forced to work with a partner they didn’t choose, or if this lesson is the one in which the teacher will realise they haven’t said anything for weeks and call on them to answer a question. When the class is asked to work in silence, they are probably the first to pick up their pens with a sigh of relief!

Thom says: ‘Forcing students to talk when they are not prepared, or when they have little to say, can only damage their confidence.’ He offers several strategies we can use to build students’ confidence and resilience. 

  • Share the reasons why dialogue and discussion are so important: to help us check understanding, to develop confidence in public speaking, to learn from each other, to verbally rehearse our thinking and make it clear, to build positive relationships.
  • Show that we value contributions by showing eye contact to the person speaking (I have definitely been guilty of glancing around the room to look out for the next contributor while someone is speaking); not allowing anyone – including ourselves – to interrupt someone who is speaking; modelling how to give sensitive feedback which is specific, respectful and clear.
  • Allow thinking time when you want to encourage longer and more detailed responses. Mary Budd Rowe, who researched ‘wait time’ in the 1970s, revealed that allowing three to five seconds for students to reflect had many benefits, including length of response, the number of appropriate and speculative responses and the number of questions asked by students.
  • Give quieter students the chance to speak and contribute early in the lesson so they have less time to become anxious about doing so.
  • Give sincere, specific and personalised praise for a response.
  • Make judicious use of ‘hands up’ and be clear when you do and don’t expect hands up, and when you will be using thinking time before asking individuals to respond.
  • Build in time to discuss responses to some questions with a partner so that ideas have been verbally rehearsed and quieter students can be asked to share theirs with the class in the confidence that they have two people’s ideas to draw on. It’s even more helpful to be clear from the start of a task like this who you expect to answer and how.
  • At those times you really want students to reflect, give thinking time and then ask them to write down their answer – this helps a student to solidify their thinking and so feel more confident in sharing it.

Silence is golden

Like Thom, I can find the return to school after a break quite shocking. The noise and number of people are overwhelming for the first few days: sometimes I throw myself into it a bit like a keen swimmer into a Springtime sea and other times I need to paddle for a bit first.

At our school, we are encouraged to include periods of silent work in our lessons on a regular basis as this creates a productive working environment and, as I say to my classes, ‘We are working in silence so that everybody can concentrate’. It’s not a punishment; it’s courteous to those around us and it enables independent thinking and learning.

So why silence for our quieter students? It enables us to read the room far more easily and identify anyone who might need our help. Quieter students are often reticent in asking for help in front of their peers and so being able to spot someone who’s struggling and offer quiet support is invaluable. In pre-Covid times, we did this by circulating the classroom; now, I do this by asking students to work in Google Classroom and it’s arguably more efficient, even if I do miss those magic moments of eye contact and understanding. Of course, we have to curb ourselves here: I learnt the hard way that insisting on silence was a waste of time if it was me who then broke it to add a detail or reminder!

Jo Sheldon, English

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