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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 04/29/2012

The challenge of the introverted student

This was written by Mark Phillips, professor emeritus of secondary education at San Francisco State University. A version of this appeared on his blog on Edutopia. He also publishes a monthly column on education for the Marin Independent Journal.

By Mark Phillips

One of my teacher interns at San Francisco State University wrote a paper a few years ago that reminded me of what I occasionally missed as a teacher. The interns had been assigned to write a letter to their high school teachers advising them about how they might have better served them as students.

My student, Rich DeNagel, wrote:

“Ninth grade was probably the worst year of my life. My home life was in shambles, and I was totally checked out of school. I was the quiet kid who showed up and never said a word. I had no ability to focus. Midway through the school year, my sister died. After that I spun into outer space. I felt so alone. I just wanted to talk to someone, anyone. I still showed up to school but nothing happened.

My home life deteriorated further the next years, and the feeling of isolation increased. School was a refuge from home, yet I felt alone at school. I was again the quiet kid who sat in class, doing and saying nothing. No one noticed.

I could have killed myself and I don’t think the teachers would have known which kid it was. I didn’t make contact with any of them . . . I don’t remember any of them trying to talk to me.

I wanted so badly to talk to someone, anyone. I felt so alone. If anyone had tried to talk to me, I would have talked. No one ever did. I went through the world of school unnoticed.

As teachers, you need to be aware and attentive of all your students. Students are giving you messages all the time . . . The quiet ones may be just as troubled as the difficult ones. Try to touch base with each student. Get to know each one. Learn about them. Find out about what is going on at home. If you try to get to know them, they may respond to you and in turn respond to your class and maybe even school.”

The Silent Type

Rich’s message is clear and powerful. Every teacher should read it and reread it regularly. Fortunately there are also other recent voices that amplify the challenge and the ways to address it.

Susan Cain’s brilliant new book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” not only does a superb job of discussing the limitations created by an extrovert-centric value system, but specifically describes how teachers and parents can meet the challenge of nurturing “quiet kids in a world that can’t hear them.” It’s also interesting that both Cain and Jonah Lehrer, in his best-selling book “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” caution us about the limitations of group decision making, a context in which extroverts dominate and the creative thinking of introverts most often gets lost. This is a powerful reminder to teachers to balance the time provided for group processes with time for individual exploration and contributions.

I tend to shy away from books that focus on helping a child to “overcome” being an introvert. Although I think it’s important to help introverted children learn to effectively navigate our extrovert-dominated world, I don’t see introversion as a characteristic that needs to be “overcome,” and neither do psychologists. They see it as an enduring trait, not a “state.” I think teachers and parents need to place a higher value on introversion, a corrective especially well provided by Cain. But I think that Laurie Helgoe’s “Introvert Power” does a good job of both embracing introversion and helping introverts learn to effectively use their strengths. A particularly valuable book in terms of helping kids learn the limits of self-containment while valuing and using their introversion, it is also a useful resource for teachers.

Listening Through the Noise

Having grown up as an introverted kid myself, I’ve always been aware that rewards for classroom engagement should not be measured only by oral contributions. Many of my best students were ones who rarely spoke in the large group, were active in smaller groups (and the smaller the better) and had a great deal to share with me privately in papers. I especially went out of my way to spend time responding to papers with comments, sometimes appropriately personal, thus encouraging a dialogue. I also took every opportunity I had to reach out to these kids, often just with a quick comment after the bell rang.

It’s easier to recognize the challenge Rich describes than it is to meet it. Faced with four or five classes of more than 25 students, it’s difficult for teachers to be aware of each student. It’s also natural for the most difficult and the most talented to stand out. Yet it is obviously critical that we remain on the lookout for those who behave well and say little, for the invisible student in back of the room who we might recognize as withdrawn or even depressed if we looked just a little more carefully. And then it’s important to reach out to that student, establish contact, and provide him or her with the opportunity to be and feel known.

Our classrooms contain too many forgotten introverted students who may need help but are not getting it and/or have gifts that aren’t being either elicited or supported. It’s important to remember that while Rich survived his high school experience and learned from it, some quiet students may not. Which is why — amid all the noise and excitement of our extroverted society — we must tap into the hidden gifts of our invisible adolescents as well.

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