How to Overcome Shyness in the Classroom

Do you or someone you know have trouble speaking up in the classroom? Lisa B. Marshall, aka The Public Speaker, has some suggestions to help you learn to speak-up more often.

Lisa B. Marshall
Episode #310

For many families this week was back to school week and many students, like my daughter Daniela, are apprehensive about the idea of active participation in the classroom. Daniela describes herself as "shy in the classroom." Daniela prefers to keep her thoughts to herself and refrain from participating in class discussions—that is, unless specifically called upon.  It's odd to me since she's definitely not that way at home. She warms up throughout the year, but when in an new environment, she prefers to keep quiet. This year, she and her twin sister are headed into middle school, so this is a big transition for her. Now she'll have different kids in each of her classes. Daniela wanted some ideas to help her overcome her shyness in the classroom.  

Why Are Some People Quiet in the Classroom?

However, before I talk about a few solutions to this issue, I think it's important to talk about why students choose not to participate in the classroom. It could simply be personality type; some people really like to sit quietly, listen to what everyone else says, and synthesize. Have you ever heard the saying, “Still waters run deep”? These people are deep thinkers, but on the surface, most people don’t realize this. That’s why St. Thomas Aquinas’ classmates called him “the Dumb Ox.” Seriously. He was big and quiet, and they thought he was dumb. But he was listening. And thinking. And that’s OK! Unless the teacher (or boss) also thinks you’re a dumb ox. And then it’s not OK. In the classroom, Daniela is definitely a thinker and is comfortable sharing her opinions at home—especially with her sister!

Other people are quiet due to self-doubt and negative self-talk: “What if I say something wrong? What if I embarrass myself?” “If I do something wrong I might get in trouble,” “I don't want to talk in classroom because people who talk out of turn get in trouble,” “People might judge me,” or “If I don't say anything, they will just think ‘oh, she's shy’ and won’t realize I don’t know the answer.”  And I think all of us, from time to time, experience self-doubt and choose to keep our mouths shut.  

Why It's Crucial to Speak Up

However, in certain situations, and for academic and professional success, it is important part of leadership to allow your voice to be heard. In school, many times you are graded for participation, and not speaking up means a reduction in your grade. However, even if you aren't graded for participation, your participation is a way for your fellow students and teacher to begin to develop a stronger/deeper relationship with you. And that is important, too!  

And by the way, not speaking up in the classroom can lead to the habit of not speaking up at work, which can be detrimental to your career. In fact, I recently was hired by an organization to work with someone who is very bright, who has great ideas—a leader within his organization—but he typically did not actively share his ideas during meetings. He told me privately that speaking during meetings was uncomfortable and that he preferred to let others speak up at meetings and if he disagreed, he'd just send an email. I was hired by his boss to help him overcome this challenge. From the perspective of senior management, active participation and discussion are key leadership skills that he needed to develop to take the next step in his career. In addition, not speaking up leads to fewer social interactions, yet positive social interactions are necessary for effective and successful internal and external networking at work (and of course they are also necessary for happiness).


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.

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