The Introduction to ‘A Quiet Education’
01 Feb 2019
Schools are anything but quiet. Their walls reverberate with noise, with a hub of activity that begins long before the bell loudly dictates the start of the day. The interpersonal demands are huge; talk and communication dominate every space.
For those of us who are more inclined to quiet, it can be an exhausting experience.
To the untrained eye it may not appear it, but quiet temperaments are just as present in the school walls as their more gregarious counterparts. The adjectives that define them are ubiquitous, but are often anything but celebratory: shy, introverted, reclusive, sensitive, guarded, private, withdrawn and anti-social represent only a select few.
We are all also perhaps guilty of defining our students who are almost indelibly marked by these adjectives as hardworking but quiet. The recipients of that dreaded conjunction are frequently prodded (by parents, by teachers, by their peers) to “come out of their shells.” How often are they perceived as being inferior, both intellectually and professionally, as a result of their quieter traits? How often is to be quiet seen as a personality to be overcome, rather than to be celebrated?
Modern education, and indeed modern life, can offer little encouragement for the solitude of these individuals. The reality is that in our schools, as microcosms for the rest of society, being outgoing is considered normal and therefore desirable, a mark of happiness, confidence and leadership. Our young people are surrounded by a twenty-four hour culture of communication and dialogue. Well-intentioned teachers (and I include myself in this) seek frequent discussion, and encourage quick and loud vocal input from students. Our students are surrounded by messages that imply to speak up, stand up, and to contribute will help them succeed.
In fact, we might go as far as to suggest that quiet can often be actively discouraged in our classrooms. When the verb “be quiet” is used, it is often in a pleading, or even draconian manner. Its relationship to punishment, and the subsequent enforced silence, is often very clear for our students. When the adjective “quiet” is used, it is often pejorative: “Daniel is a lovely student, but he is very quiet. He really needs to speak up more”.
Considering the psychological impact of the flippant dismissal of quiet is at the heart of this book. I will address what I feel is an important question: how can we encourage more acceptance and celebration of quiet in our modern schools?
We will examine the ways in which we can help our quieter students navigate this extroverted world, and achieve their potential. In turn, we will see that the need to educate and guide our students on the value of quiet is more relevant and important now than ever before.
While our classrooms may be dominated by louder, more loquacious and more confident students, within each one are these pockets of young people who may not rush to volunteer answers, who may be more hesitant and more reserved. They are the students who will pass through the day without contributing, quietly persevering. They, and the following questions, are our focus in Section one: Quiet Students
Why should teachers be more aware of the differences between extroversion and introversion?
How can we ensure that our quieter students feel both comfortable and confident in our lessons?
What can we do to improve the nature of our classroom dialogue?
Is there a place for group work in our classrooms?
How can we maximise the potential of silence in our lessons?
How can we build more effective relationships with our quieter students?
How can we help them to find the optimum balance between anxiety and confidence, to help them to discover the voice to share their rich inner world?
Quiet is not, of course, limited to our students. The reality is that those classrooms may not be led by the most outgoing and boisterous of teachers. Instead, at their heart may be a teacher who has to channel huge amounts of energy in order to present the extroverted skills that teaching demands. These teachers may find themselves overwhelmed at the end of the day, their energy sources sapped and reduced by the extensive social interactions that a day inside a classroom requires.
They may be the individuals who appear to run for cover when social events are called, happy to retreat back into the anonymity and comfort of their inner worlds. In meetings, their vocal contributions may not match the level of passion and reflection they have for their profession. In fact, in meetings and staff training they may present as completely anonymous. The dreaded statement: “now get into groups and discuss”, creates nothing but a shiver of fear for them.
There is no magic silver bullet to creating the perfect teacher persona, and authenticity is vital to success in the classroom. There is, however, as we will discover in the pages of this book, much we can learn from embracing the quiet focus in our teaching, and indeed in our leadership.
Leadership and quiet in schools is not, despite what some forms of leadership might like to loudly declaim, an oxymoron. What we will unpick in the pages of this book is ways in which quiet leadership in schools can thrive. We will deconstruct what helps quiet leaders in schools build meaningful relationships, and an understanding of their colleagues.
For those of us who might aspire to such levels, but lack the confidence to enter into roles that will require more presence from us, we will examine how we can take the steps without overwhelming our dispositions. Examining the inner drive, and the motivating purpose for working in education will be a part of this process. Even Doug Lemov, author of ‘Teach like a Champion’ and leadership guru has said, “I’m a huge introvert. It’s strange to me that I do what I do, and like it as much as I do.”
In Section two Quiet Teachers and Leaders will be the focus, and the following questions:
What can we learn from these quiet teachers and leaders?
How can we find the vehicles and ways to ensure that their strengths are being disseminated, that their qualities are being recognised?
What are they doing in their classrooms that we can all learn from?
What can prevent burn out for these teachers?
What can we learn from quieter teacher improvement strategies: coaching, reflection and reading?
What makes a more quiet leadership style effective?
The nuance of the learning within these classrooms walls, in which personality dynamic plays such an important role, is often underpinned by invisible and indeed quiet skills. Solitude is a vital precursor for expert performance, and for finding what the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályideems ‘flow’ – the conditions in which we find ourselves immersed in a task. Classrooms in which extroversion dominates, which are noisy and intense could in fact be damaging our young people’s ability to think clearly, and to harness the inner dialogue that is so important to their learning. As Daniel T Willingham reminds us: ‘Unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking’.
The reality is that any final output from our young people is produced in quiet: it is the product of their own understanding and knowledge. Just take a moment to picture the eerie and intimidating silence of any examination hall. Are we really doing enough to equip our students with the skills to succeed in these conditions?
In Section three these invisible, quiet and introspective skills will be explored.
What is the secret to improved focus and discipline for our students?
How can we help them to monitor their own thinking?
How can we improve their ability to meaningfully reflect on their learning?
What can we do to improve their self-esteem and motivation?
How can we cultivate the quiet qualities of listening and empathy?
The list is endless but powerful: quiet is a source of huge potential in developing life long skills that transcend the classroom walls.
There is also a personal mission in writing this book. I am happy to admit I embrace every introverted and quiet cliché. I am happier at home with a book than out socialising; I am bordering on invisible in staff meetings, and I find myself severely lacking in conversation after a day in the interpersonally demanding environment of school. It is a silent cocktail that makes me scintillating company, and often can lead to conflict with my remarkably extroverted wife!
It doesn’t, however, detract from what I know is a very energetic and enthusiastic classroom presence. My students are often surprised when I refer to myself as a quiet and more introverted individual. This is an exploration for later in the book; we shall examine how our personas may be more fluid than we might initially think.
These quiet qualities dominate my family. Deep in the beautiful Highlands of Scotland, surrounded by fields and inquisitive cows for company (and books!), my mother and father live a quiet life amongst nature.
Both also encapsulate all quiet clichés, but (there is that pesky conjunction again) have devoted their lives to young people and education. My mother was a genuinely wonderful and life-changing primary school for twenty-five years. My father continues to enthuse and inspire young people in his lessons after thirty-five years of teaching English in the same school. I should know, he taught me, and was very much an inspiration for me becoming an English teacher.
This is not a book that is written to add additional work to our already busy and hectic lives in education. Neither is it asking us to revolutionise or transform our practice. Instead, it is about subtle adjustments, interpersonal awareness and an increased recognition of the ways in which we can build effective relationships with all our students.
I hope to begin a dialogue that is led by a loud declaration: a quiet education will help us to understand our students better, ourselves and our capacity for leadership, and vitally – how our young people learn best.
Thank you for reading. ‘A Quiet Education’ will be published by John Catt Educational at the end of the year. I would be hugely grateful if you have any feedback or suggestions about how to improve this introduction. Please also do get in touch if you consider yourself a quieter teacher, or the parent of a quieter young person.