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Why quiet should play an important role in education

September 14, 2020, 13:33 GMT+1
Read in about 7 minutes
  • Jamie Thom, self-confessed introvert, English teacher, TES columnist and host of the TES English teaching podcast, explains why quiet should play an important role in education...
Why quiet should play an important role in education

What led you to write your book A Quiet Education?
Basically, I’m a fully fledged introvert myself. I was very quiet at school and I’m quite a quiet adult. Obviously, as a teacher, you’re conscious that schools can be hugely extrovert-designed places, full of group work, collaboration and communal space.

Also the way quiet is referred to in schools isn’t often the best: “They are a brilliant student but too quiet.” I wanted to challenge that narrative and offer something a little bit more celebratory about the values of quiet that can exist in schools.

How can we build more effective relationships with quieter pupils?
You will have kids who just sit down, who don’t want to engage or happily get on with the work. Should teachers be looking at that and try to bring them out? Or should they just encourage them to learn?

I think we’ve got to respect the fact that some people have innate temperaments. We shouldn’t try to impose an extrovert ideal on particularly younger children. There are insecurities that come with that: am I too quiet? Am I not like my friends who are much more, on the surface, gregarious and chatty. I think one of the things we have to do as teachers is celebrate the quieter quality, the deep concentration that our introverted students will be capable of and the questioning they will be doing internally of what’s being shared in the lessons.

Teachers can be quiet as well. What can we learn from them?
One of the lovely things about writing the book was finding out how many teachers consider themselves to be more introverted. It’s a profession that, on the surface, demands a degree of being an extrovert. You have to perform in front of groups of young people and bring a certain degree of enthusiasm and vibrancy.

Not that introverts aren’t capable of that but I think that’s the stereotype, that introverts are hidden in the cupboard with a book, whereas the reality is that lots of teachers are channelling more extroverted performances in the classroom.

For myself, that’s actually one of the joys of teaching, that sense of ease that you might get in a classroom where you’re free to just perform and be a slightly more extreme version of yourself.

I’m conscious of giving space for silence in my lessons. Partly for my own selfish, restorative need. But partly because I recognise that any real deep thinking needs silence to facilitate that.

If you are that quiet a teacher, how can you allow yourself to restore, to have a long career in education, particularly primary teaching. My mom was a wonderful primary school teacher for years and years but the most introverted human being you can ever meet. And I think she helped me out a lot in terms of what can more introverted people do to restore themselves?

But it’s not just the classroom that quiet teachers have to deal with, is it?
The other real challenge of being a teacher is the huge interpersonal and communication demands. That’s where you’ve got to have a degree of selfishness. If you know that you are an individual who needs quiet to restore yourself then you have to find out what works for you to switch off.

I spoke to so many teachers who had amazing things they did, from marathon running to bird watching. Anything that will help you to find the quiet and find the recharge you need to do the job well.

There’s lots of research correlating introversion with more burnout. That’s why you just have to be able to let work go, as easy as that sounds, and at the end of the school day you have that cut off point. You have to bring some of that introverted discipline to a work/life balance because otherwise it’s a career that can swallow you up.

People can get lost in the system or feel overwhelmed and, especially if you’re introverted, it may be difficult to reach out for help.

What skills can introverts bring to the classroom?
There are certain skills that are introspective, that all our young people would benefit in more attention being paid to, such as developing listening skills. In our extroverted and loud society, particularly in primary schools, the capacity to teach young people to listen to each other with intent and consideration is a valuable life skill.

How is the concept of quiet beneficial to teaching?
In teaching I think silence becomes something that’s quite draconian in the classroom and quite didactic: “Your behaviour has been outrageous so you’re going to work in silence for the next ten minutes.”

I’m trying to reframe that narrative and teach silence as something that’s really positive. Working in silence it’s about us showing what we’re capable of doing individually. I call it sacred silence in my lessons and try and get as much focus on that being something that can’t be broken because then we’re letting each other down.

One teacher I spoke to uses silence as kindness in his classroom. So silence represents something kind, something nurturing that we’re doing for each other, rather than something punitive.

What would you want people to take away with them after reading the book?
I think schools are incredibly complex and diverse places but they really should represent celebrating human nature in its glorious diversity. My takeaway is that we should be recognising and celebrating that quiet can be something remarkably powerful in our skills. And remarkably important for young people to develop as they get older and mature.

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