Speaking in a group as a shy student at school was a problem for me. One of the worst experiences I can remember is the speaking exam I had to do for GCSE English which involved having a discussion in a group of four students and the teacher. I could usually respond verbally if I was directly asked a question, but this situation required me to speak up spontaneously, which is something I felt completely unable to do.
Being able to suddenly ‘chime in’ and make your voice heard amongst a group takes a certain skill and confidence, and I had not yet learnt to speak in this way at this stage of my life. So, unfortunately, the GCSE discussion did not go very well. After a few minutes having said nothing at all, the teacher thankfully started asking some questions to me directly so I was at least able to contribute a little bit. However, it felt like a very humiliating and shameful experience and I came out into the corridor full of tears.
In other situations, I did say absolutely nothing. I remember during my A Level French practising our speaking as part of a class discussion. We were told that each one of us should speak at least once during this, but of course I did not contribute – not because I didn’t want to, or because I refused to follow instructions, but because I simply was unable to. These kinds of situations made me believe that something was wrong with me because I couldn’t fulfil what the teacher was asking for, and because everyone else seemed to have no problem getting involved. Was I really the shyest person in the world?
There were also times when I was actually told I was being too shy and was essentially asked to change. We used to speak in a small group with a language assistant on a weekly basis for French A Level, and I was able to cope with this relatively well, because I was with my friend in the group and the questions were asked directly towards me. However, I was clearly still not performing well enough, because my teacher said I was being too shy and needed to try to speak more as it was important for our exam practice…. Well, to a certain extent I did understand this, but on the other hand, you can’t simply ask someone to stop being shy and expect things to change! It’s impossible to flick a switch and suddenly eradicate anxieties. In fact, this actually had the opposite effect on me and made me feel even more self-conscious and nervous to attend the group. I don’t think being shy is a choice; I believe many people don’t enjoy being shy, and often – at a more extreme level – shyness can have a detrimental effect on our overall well-being and mental health.
As an adult, I have developed as a person a lot since school, and can generally speak more confidently in many different situations. However, I still tend to sit quietly in a group situation and continue to struggle to speak up spontaneously. I think the difference is, however, that I feel less bad about it most of the time and my silence is more often a result of my tendency towards introversion rather than any anxieties. I mostly do better in groups if I am the authority of the group, such as when I have to lead a group in my role as a teacher… although I would not enjoy being the authority amongst a group of adults!
I believe that learning communication skills at school is beneficial, however it’s important to bear in mind that everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. In this way, speaking in certain situations may be more comfortable than in others… and that’s ok! I would never want another shy student to feel the hopelessness I felt because of ‘supposed’ inabilities. Instead, I think shy students should be better supported and I would like to see greater understanding in the teaching community of the difficulties that shy students face. A willingness to work with them in developing strategies to build confidence and contribution should be the first port of call, and not the typical shaming request to ‘speak up’ and ‘stop being shy’!