Blind spots: a manifesto for teaching quiet students

23 Feb 2017


“People are so complicated. Every new person is a completely new role of the dice.” ‘The Giveness of Things’ Marilynne Robinson.

Please forgive a rather incongruous opening. Last week I took advantage of a room exit from my wife to hastily flick away from Gary Barlow and his chums (take that indeed) to catch an excellent scene from ‘Shaun of the Dead.’ In it our hero Shaun is on his daily morning paper jaunt, completely oblivious to the havoc that zombies are wrecking on London:

It is a brilliant scene: comically ludicrous in his lack of awareness of the destruction that threatens to engulf him. It is also, stick with me here, a splendid metaphor (at least for my purposes anyway!) for what is missed and left behind in the classroom. In the madness of the every day full teaching timetable much is left unexamined or worse ignored. Inspired by ‘Shaun of the Dead’ (a sentence I never expected to write) I want to reflect over the next couple of weeks on these blind spots in the classroom.

On a slightly more intellectual level, a delightful half term trip to New York this week was combined with an American entry into the classic reading adventure: ‘The Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison. The opening:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Egdar Allen Poe; nor am I one of those Hollywood movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids, and I might even be said to posses a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

Despite my best efforts I think there are still students lurking in the corners of my classroom for whom this opening might painfully resonate and indeed encapsulate. They are the quiet souls who I let slip through on a daily basis, who are dominated by their more loquacious peers. They are also the victims of the utterly superfluous and trite feedback at parents’ evenings: “lovely and hardworking but should try to contribute more.” Am I doing enough to nurture, develop and celebrate these more introverted souls? As always, the answer is probably not – certainly that more could be done. Essential reading in this regard is Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet’, a hugely enabling text into developing an understanding of those more prone to introverted tendencies.

So if Mr Zuckerberg can release his public call to arms, I can certainly do it. Here is my manifesto for a brighter, more accepted future for my quieter students:

To my quieter students,

I recognise the interpersonal demands of the classroom: the noise, the questions, the pace, the confidence that seems to exude from some of your more boisterous chums. I acknowledge that at times this may seem exhausting and overwhelming. I get the sense that at times you are harnessing some hidden and amazing thoughts but lack the confidence to share them. Trust me, as a self confessed “introvert,” I understand and empathise with your frustration.  I also take my responsibility to empower you and your confidence seriously.

My hope is that with our combined commitment we can make some pragmatic changes to classroom life that can assist you. Importantly I also want you to feel that your diversity is both appreciated and celebrated in my classroom: to be quiet is something to be cherished not belittled. It is time for you to stand up and be proud of your restraint and reflective capacities. Just ask J.K Rowling or Barack Obama!

I know that I am prone to firing out questions like Wilfred Owen’s “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle.” I can appreciate that this might be rather stressful at times, particularly when that pesky cold call or random name selector rear their ugly heads. Nobody likes to feel under pressure to respond immediately, without the chance to reflect. Processing thinking can be more challenging for some than others, trust me I am often utterly useless in meetings. I will try to be more thoughtful about giving you scope for preparation. You will have thinking time or time to write then respond before I ask for feedback more often.

Checking with someone next to you first will help you to feel confident, let’s do more of that. Those moments when we do group discussions will be as structured as I can make them, for your clarity and for those around you. Once you have formulated your thinking it is now important that you take small steps to share. Aim to build this gradually, if you do your confidence will be slowly harnessed. Practise really will pay dividends, the art of speaking in front of others like everything else can and will get easier.

Once you have shared or if I ask you, I will aim to respond sensitively but I might ask you to rephrase something or consider your response in more depth. I will do this only because I know how capable you are of profound thinking, not because I want to embarrass you. This will also help you to realise quite what you are capable of expressing.

When I offer you praise in return, I will endeavour to do this in a way that you appreciate. If that is a quiet word on an individual basis, then I am delighted to do it. If it is a postcard then I am your man (although hound me for it, sometimes I have the memory of a sieve). If it is a smile or a pat on the back then that is how we will recognise your efforts. Be certain, however, that I will notice and appreciate what you do. I also promise that when I communicate with your parents I will not lampoon you for participation, I will celebrate the efforts you are making.

While the minutiae of Jack’s latest football adventure might take up my immediate attention, let me be very clear: I am interested and value your experience just as much. It is just shared differently, your quiet dignity means that I am less immediately encompassed by demands upon time. I know I need to be better at seeking you out and asking. Be patient with me and please share!

While this dialogue with me and the people around you is vital, I also know how important silence is for you. There will be at least one “sacred silence” section in every lesson. This might be to read or process something individually or to complete writing. I also recognise how valuable this is, I am a complete diary convert and cannot write or read unless the conditions are right. It is important that the more chatty folk in our classroom walls hone this skill also – it is a win, win for us all.

We will work together to make sure that my classroom is one in which you, alongside all the other wonderful “roles of dice” that encompass the space are valued and at ease. Please make sure you share your thoughts with me as we progress – anyway that you feel fit!

Mr Thom.

The beginnings of an approach to seek to ameliorate or at least make progress with this blind spot. Words, however carefully reflected upon, are empty without practical action. The first cure to enabling perspective, however, is always the physical act of opening one’s eyes and accepting that more should be done. To come full zombie circle, just ask this poor chap I found on the streets of New York:


A statue, before the complaint comments come flooding in. Thank you for reading (errors, excessive sentimentality, zombies, strange images and bad puns can all be blamed on Wednesday night’s over night flight back from New York and severe jet lag!)







Jamie Thom

English teacher, host of @TES English teaching podcast. Author of 'Slow Teaching.' MEd in Practitioner Enquiry, doctorate student #StrathEdD. Runner.

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