Quiet: The Power of Introverts

How to thrive in a world that can't stop talking.

What Do Teachers Really Think of Quiet Kids?

What happens when kids are quiet at school.

Did you catch the recent news story about Natalie Munro, the high school English teacher from Pennsylvania who blogged her true feelings about her students? Apparently failing to comprehend the public nature of the Internet, she mused about the nasty things she wished she could write on her students' report cards.

It was an awful abuse of trust, and a blinkered use of the blogging medium. But that's not what I want to focus on here; others have already covered that very effectively.

I want to talk about Munro's view of quiet and shy students. Here, according to her blog entry of January 21, 2010 (since taken down), is what she wished she could put on their report cards:

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"A kid that has no personality."

"She just sits there emotionless for an entire 90 minutes, staring into the abyss, never volunteering to speak or do anything."

"Shy isn't cute in 11th grade; it's annoying. Must learn to advocate for himself instead of having Mommy do it."

Munro seemed to have no understanding of how tough a place the typical American high school can be for introverts - like an all-day cocktail party without any alcohol. She believed that these kids should suck it up and act like everyone else. And she was right, to a certain extent; we all need to fake it a little, extroverts too. I've met many introverted kids who are thriving and happy, and most of them have learned how to adopt an extroverted persona when need be.

But consider this question: Why do so many high-functioning people look back at high school as the worst time of their lives - and why do we accept this as normal?

As adults, we get to choose the careers, spouses, and social circles that suit us. Bill Gates and Bill Clinton thrive in very different work environments. But for schoolchildren, it's one size fits all - and the size on offer is usually extra-extroverted.

One saving grace are the teachers who understand all this, the teachers who connect with the kid in the back row thinking amazing thoughts that he's uncomfortable sharing aloud with 25 classmates. I've spent a lot of time touring schools and observing classrooms, and I've met some great and sensitive teachers along the way. I read through Munro's blog before she took it down, and can report that she's clearly a unique case - not representative of your typical teacher.

I also know how hard it is for teachers when students are reluctant to participate in class. I used to teach negotiation skills, and once I taught two back-to-back negotiation seminars - a Wednesday night class and a Thursday night class. The Wednesday night class discussions were always lively and animated. But in the Thursday night class, the participants stared at me as if I had two heads, and wanted me to do all the talking. This made my job so much harder and - on a day-to-day basis - less fulfilling. Some of those students wrote me letters when the class was all done, expressing how deeply they'd enjoyed it. I was surprised each and every time; I'd assumed they hadn't liked the class at all.

So I have tremendous respect for teachers who work gracefully with their "Thursday night" students.But I wonder whether they are the exceptions; studies suggest that the vast majority of our teachers believe that the "ideal student" is an extrovert.

Which is extraordinary, when you consider how many of our greatest thinkers were introverts. Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, George Orwell, Steven Spielberg, Larry Page, J.K. Rowling: none of them would have made "ideal students."

If I had one wish, it would be to reverse the stigma against introversion for children, so that the next generation won't grow up with the secret self-loathing that plagues so many introverted grown-ups today.

Are you a parent, teacher, student?  What experiences have you had in class?  

*To learn more about what others think of this issue, including an interview with teacher Royan Lee on how social media is a wonderful game-changer for quiet kids in the classroom, please go here and here.

If you like this blog, you might like to pre-order my forthcoming book, QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

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Susan Cain is the author of QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, a popular blog and forthcoming book about introversion.

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