Teaching Introverts and Shy Students

When I was in school, I was not only an introvert, but also quite shy. I was the very quiet kid who didn’t like speaking in front of the class. Reading reports in front of my classmates was one of the worst things I could’ve been asked to do.

A lot of teachers say it’s a good thing to get kids to speak in front of class like that. Did it help me? Did it allow me to “come out of my shell” a bit? Not at all. Each time was terrifying and didn’t make things any better. That’s not to say it doesn’t help others, but in my case, I didn’t get over my shyness until I was in my 20s and had a job involving talking to strangers over the phone. My confidence developed because of that, and soon after, I was promoted to Team Leader, which is a supervisory role. I was then talking in front of groups of people doing project briefings. And now, I teach. I’m always in front of people talking to them. I don’t get nervous about it. I’m confident in my lessons. My shyness went away, but my introversion remains.

What’s the difference? Shyness is a personality trait that leads to social anxiety. There’s a fear of speaking to people, being the centre of attention, and a strong desire to just get away from everyone. Eye contact is difficult, using a louder voice is nearly impossible, and sweating is often profuse while having to speak to or meet new people. This is something that can be changed, but people shouldn’t be forced to change. That can cause an even stronger social anxiety.

Introverts have an actual physical difference in their brains than extroverts. The brains of many individuals have been examined, and it was determined that introverts have more than a personality difference, it’s physical. They’re likely born that way. Introverts gain energy by being alone. They spend energy while being in social situations. A party is tiring, but that doesn’t mean an introvert doesn’t enjoy parties. They may like them in moderation. I personally don’t like parties, unless it’s only good friends or people I like. I’d prefer not to be overstimulated by a lot of strangers coming to me for some small talk. Small talk is something introverts find tiring and pointless. We want to talk, but we want to talk about deep subjects, not shallow small talk. This reluctance to speak to strangers seems to appear like shyness, but it isn’t. And also, introverts tend to take their time to answer. That hesitation isn’t shyness, it’s just that the answers are being well thought out. Introverts like precise and effective communication. They want to get to the point, cut out the unnecessary details, but be very thorough about giving all of the important information. They are excellent communicators when they need to be, can be excellent leaders and decision-makers, and are great judges of character. One of my abilities is to adapt to different personality types. I find it remarkably easy to get along with just about everyone. Not everyone sees my true personality, but I learn about others’ personalities and adjust my outward “personality” accordingly. It’s like I’m a chameleon.

When teaching introverts and shy people, it can be a bit different. I understand both introverted and shy students. For adults, they tend to be more in control of their shyness and introverted tendencies.  Kids have a lot more trouble with it, though.

For shy kids, they don’t want to talk. They’re quiet, they notoriously difficult to get to say anything, and they rarely talk to their classmates. They often look down or look around at anything but other people. Patience is important for the teacher, but also finding a way to build the student’s confidence.  Confidence is the main issue with shy kids.

For introverted kids, they are not necessarily shy, but are also often quiet, especially in larger groups. Get an introvert in a small two or one student class, and they are more likely to talk rather than listen. There’s hesitation when they answer. This isn’t shyness. This isn’t nerves. This is just them formulating their answer in full before they answer. They’re perfectly capable of having fun with other kids, but they’re also likely to be more serious. Although, I have had introverted kids laughing a lot, while extroverted ones are incredibly serious, but very talkative.

I think in both cases, patience on the teacher’s part is important. For shy students, take time to get them to feel more confident. They’ll likely feel better as they get to know other students, but are likely to shy away from speaking in front of large groups. Introverts need time to answer, because they want to have a thoughtful and precise answer. Speaking in front of a large class may not be a problem in their case, but it is draining if they have to do very social activities.

In my case, being both an introvert and a shy student, I had the misfortune of being afraid to speak out in class. However, I felt more comfortable in small groups of about three or four people, and I would offer my thoughts, and often take a bit of a leadership role.

So, teachers, if you aren’t an introvert, and you don’t fully understand what it’s like to be an introvert, please try to understand that forcing them into an extrovert mould is likely to backfire. It’s not in their nature to behave like an extrovert. Speeches in front of class aren’t exactly helpful. Group work is better.

This post is in response to an article that appeared in the Huffington Post.

Teachers, introverts, and anyone else, what are your thoughts on this subject? Let me know in the comments below.

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12 thoughts on “Teaching Introverts and Shy Students”

    1. That’s a difficult question to answer. It really depends on each student’s ability to study and pay attention. Also, some aren’t as motivated as others. I find motivation to be the biggest factor. As long as they enjoy it, they tend to do well. I’ve had some that never seem to learn anything no matter what kind of environment they’re in.

  1. I am still called shy and an introvert. I am an introvert. I love being alone and I’m a home body. I love being in my house, writing or fiddling with the internet. I worked in a call center also and my confidence boosted. I don’t think i’m as shy or timid as i once was. Now, I can hold a conversation, but I may not be the one to start it.

    1. It’s part of my job to start conversations, but I know how you feel. I do start conversations in other situations, though. I’d say I’m over that. However, when I do have to start a conversation that’s quite important, I rehearse a lot in my head.

  2. I have grown out of my shyness, not my introvertedness. As an introverted teacher, I understand when a student doesn’t want to read in front of the class. Most often this can be solved by letting them read while sitting at their desk. Also, I find that I am relaxed in front of a group of kids. However, in front of a group of adults I am more likely to slip into introverted, shy teacher.

    1. I don’t think it’s possible to grow out of being introverted, considering it’s an actual difference in brain structure.

      I do fine with kids, but I find I’m more comfortable teaching adults. More conversation is possible. Kids can be a challenge if they’re not behaving.

  3. I particularly appreciated your pointing out that introverts often need to pause to collect their thoughts before sharing their ideas. It really helps for teachers – and everyone else – to realize this.

    1. Yes, I thought that was important. People sometimes take that silence as being shy. I don’t do that so much, though. But when I do, I make sure I let others know I’m thinking using thinking phrases and sounds.

  4. I was also both shy and an introvert. I got along well with lots of kids, but it was difficult for me to start a conversation with someone and I HATED being the center of attention. I always dreaded any kind of public speaking or presentation because having all eyes on me would freak me out and I’d start stuttering or losing my place.

    Strangely, none of this seemed to apply when it came to any kind of performance. I didn’t mind singing and playing guitar in front of people. I acted in a few school plays with no problem. My best friend and I even wrote and composed a song for Remembrance Day once and performed it in front of the entire school, a ton of parents, and the local legionnaires with no problem at all. But in a way this situational confidence actually made things worse because teachers and my parents would be like, “If you can sing in front of people, you can talk in front of people, so stop being so foolish!” It was extremely frustrating.

    So far, although she occasionally plays at being shy, my daughter seems pretty outgoing and talkative, so I’m hoping this won’t be a problem with her, but if it is I play to be 100% more supportive than the fools I had to deal with!

    1. I could never get up in front of an audience to do any kind of performance. For one thing, I don’t dance, sing, or play a musical instrument. Never wanted to, and I have no desire to. I’m just not a musical person.

      My daughter is very outgoing. She talks to everyone. She also sings and dances constantly, and she often plays with a piano app or piano toy.

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