The Quiet One at the Back

I attended a staff development event on Friday. It was useful and interesting, so anyone waiting to see if I trip up and say something inappropriate about my employer will be sadly disappointed today. No, the training and the content were both fine. What was interesting, however, was a little thing I observed about behaviour. 

The organisers (Hi!) had arranged a seating plan to ensure that people weren’t sitting with the people they usually worked with. This is, of course, a staff development variation on a practice I use in class: making students move around and work with other people they may not otherwise engage with. Again, all for the good, really, an opportunity to explore new ideas, or to challenge your own ideas, further build networks and so on. Except for one crucial factor. I was sitting right at the front, bang in front of the screen and on display. 

I know, there does have to be a front, or at least a bit of the room which is most prominent and visible to the tutor. Trouble is, in a setting like that, I’m quite shy. Perhaps it’s a height thing: tall people sometimes do want to shrink themselves away from the spotlight. Certainly I don’t do meetings with confidence, particularly with people I don’t know too well, and I’m not a natural networker. Nerves will always get the better of me. Nope, all that that prominent positioning induced in me was a desire to retreat. And I did. It took me most of the morning before I genuinely relaxed enough to properly engage with anyone but my immediate neighbour (who I did know), but for the majority I just wanted to be able to shrink by 2 feet and not talk to anyone.

That still not the interesting thing, however. The actual genuine interesting thing was what it made me think about all those poor students I have roughly torn out of their comfort zone and forced to head across the room and talk to someone else. Or those students who may well be just happy sitting and listening and who I have forced to speak in the name of learning. Dammit, I thought, I am such a bastard. I hate being singled out or forced to talk to people I don’t know. Always have hated it. I usually sit at the back of the room not so I can muck about but so the teacher doesn’t notice me (there is a golden spot for this, and a spot to which I gravitate, but I’m damned if I’m letting you in on that secret) and therefore can avoid anything unpleasant like engaging in a class discussion. 

So what’s to be done with people like me? For one, don’t do whole group activities. Or minimise them, and allow plenty of timing and structure. Shy people may be mustering an argument and building up to saying something but never quite getting it out there because they don’t get the chance. They may just be seething in dread that they will be asked to participate. Either way, they won’t be listening. So use collaborative methods of whole class q&a, like getting everyone to answer questions on mini whiteboards or voting software, rather than ideas like the frankly vicious “pose, pause, pounce, bounce“. (Interestingly, I googled that and in the various to of guidance there were lots warnings about students shouting out, but nothing about supporting students who clam up. References talked about “if students don’t know the answer” but nobody suggested that students may not feel confident enough to answer. Teachers are such unsympathetic shits sometimes.) 

One thing I do do is use smaller groups, for discussion tasks. Smaller groups are easier to monitor and give feedback to, as well as being less challenging for quieter, shyer students. But I try and think about those groupings. Sometimes, a friendship grouping is perfectly fine, and if it causes no major issues in terms of behaviours or mixing of ability, then where’s the problem? (I’ve got to admit, my personal jury is currently out on mixing male and female students. I know that it’s a Good Thing to mix the sexes, but if it causes discomfort and resentment? I’m not saying I won’t, merely that I question whether it’s always essential. Mind you, it’s an easy fail during a lesson obs on e&d terms so it’s worth getting students to shift about regularly.) Mixing groupings based on various criteria is pretty much standard, to the extent that failure to mix is tantamount to Bad Pracice. 

Hmmm. I have an abiding memory of being asked to work with a very confident but less academically able student in one class at school and it was horrible for both of us. Certainly I doubt that any significant learning will happen. If you get a shy, perhaps better able student and sit him next to the loud, mouthy, slightly less able student in the well meaning hope that they will bring the best out in each other, you will probably find that it’s not the case. Either the shy student will simply retreat a bit more, probably not engage, and the overall output of that grouping will be rubbish, or they will do most of the work and the gobby one will get unearned kudos. So just don’t do it. Both parties will also hate you, your lesson and your subject. 

I know what you’re thinking: developing confidence is a useful life skill. You are absolutely right, of course. My own retreat into tongue-tied silence at meetings, workshops and conferences is a testament to that. But maybe, just maybe, big mouth super confident, networker types are not always ideal. Maybe, just maybe, these people are profoundly irritating in their relentless self-promotion and their selfish dominance of meetings and workshops with their own private agendas. Ye gods, if we were all like that it would be awful. But yes, some of us do need to develop that confidence. However the bullying “go on, pull yourself together, it’s good for you” mindset is not the way. Being dropped in the deep end may help some people swim, after all, but some of us simply drown. 



  1. I really enjoyed reading this. I’m an introvert and enjoyed the book “Quiet The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop talking” by Susan Cain. I’ve got used to speaking out in meetings after a lot of practice and am just building up courage to start blogging!

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