What Do Teachers Think of Shy Students? An Insider’s View

Shyness is the feeling of uncomfortableness and awkwardness in front of others, often felt in large groups. And almost 50% of Americans say they are shy.

Teachers have wide opinions of shy students from them being disengaged and lacking understanding to the opposite, that shy students are smart and don’t need academic help. Yet, most teachers agree shy students need extra support to overcome their shyness or it will hinder their future if they don’t.

As a former public school teacher, I have a unique perspective on what teachers think of shy students, having taught both in elementary school and at the secondary level. Here’s what I’ve found to be most common, though not always true.

Elementary Teachers Think…

Elementary teachers overwhelmingly see shyness as a negative attribute in students and as a result, teachers work towards eradicating shyness in their students, almost as much as they work to educate them.

Teachers in the K-5 arena are use to not only teaching core subject matter like reading, math, and science, but also ‘the whole child.’ When I taught elementary grades (primarily 3rd and 4th), I spent just as much time teaching social skills and good citizenship as I did math and history.

At my last school prior to early retirement, we included daily community/relationship building lessons in our mandated Morning Meetings, in fact. I must admit that being shy wasn’t conducive to expected class discussions and ‘community circle’ time in which every student was required to contribute.

That Shy Students Are Behind

Elementary teachers often think that shy students are behind academically. For the most part, if students don’t raise their hand to answer a question, teachers think those students don’t know the answer.

This invariably causes teachers to zero in on those reticent students. They want them to prove they know the answer, or not, so then the teacher calls on the shy student instead of the others volunteering. If the student is too shy to respond, then the teacher takes that as confirmation the student doesn’t know the answer (right or wrong!).

Teachers also must mark students’ understanding of material on progress reports and/or report cards and most use participation as a means to evaluate their students. This is generally done for simplicity’s sake, but doesn’t necessarily translate to valid scoring, especially in regards to shy students. If students are too shy to participate, then they’ll be marked down for not demonstrating comprehension, even though it’s really only evaluating their shyness, not their academic understanding.

That Shy Students Lack Social Skills

The second thing elementary teachers think about shy students is that they lack social skills. Because we often equate social preparedness with extroverted behaviors, those who are shy are often misunderstood in this area.

Students in elementary school are expected to possess certain social skills in order to function properly in school. Students need to be able to navigate the cafeteria; speak up if they have a question or need to use the restroom; take a message to the office or another classroom, or deliver messages from home; be able to acclimate in different class settings when they are in ‘specials’ like music or P.E.; find playmates at recess; and so on.

Shy students might have difficulty in some of these environments due to their shyness; shy students might be too shy/reticent to speak up about being bullied on the playground or getting their milk at lunch if the cafeteria worker forgot to give it to them.

But sometimes, shy students do just fine in these areas. Sometimes shyness doesn’t inhibit the students’ success in social areas as long as he or she isn’t the focus of attention in a large group. Often shy students have no problem making friends, or speaking up in 1:1 situations or in small groups.

That Shy Students Lack Confidence

The third thing teachers in elementary school think about shy students is that shy students lack confidence. They think that because shy students are nervous or have anxiety about speaking up, then they must feel insecure about themselves.

This results in much more early attention from preschool and kindergarten teachers, when comparing teacher interactions with their shy students versus interactions with students who don’t exhibit shyness. According to this report, teachers of young students are very concerned with the negative implications of shyness and its effects on student self-esteem.

That Shy Students Need to be Fixed

Teachers of shy students in elementary school pay much more attention to their students than their secondary colleagues who have shy students, too. Elementary teachers exhibit heightened concern over shyness as a lasting characteristic of their students, and think it is something to be addressed and corrected.

Shy students might get ignored in the classroom heat of the moment in lieu of disruptive students at the elementary level. However, teachers of shy students haven’t overlooked them in the big educational picture. These teachers will certainly list shyness as an issue ‘to work on’ on student report cards and progress reports, and will most assuredly address it at parent-teacher conferences.

Elementary teachers fear that shyness will have a long lasting, negative impact on their students.

That Shy Students Need Extra Support

The fifth and last thing that most elementary teachers think of their shy students is that they need extra support. You will rarely find an elementary teacher to think their shy students are just fine being shy.

Most teachers will intervene to help their shy students rise above their shyness. When these attempts fail or don’t meet the teachers expectations, then they’ll enlist parental support. As well, they’ll often reach out of the classroom, either to guidance counselors or some other extra curricular support person.

Teachers often recommend their shy students get involved in sports or martial arts.

Sports and martial arts can be effective activities for helping shy students be more outspoken or confident, that is, if those are the underlying reasons for shyness.

If you are looking for martial arts to help with confidence, you might like to read this article by my husband about martial arts for kids.

Secondary Teachers Think…

I spent several years teaching at the secondary level, teaching honors English and English to Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). Middle and high school teachers are considered subject-matter experts and likewise, are often more invested in their content than elementary school teachers.

Nevertheless, shy students are a concern at this level, too. Teachers have varying ideas about why high school students are shy and what to do about it. Here are the most common assumptions I’ve found during my time at the secondary level.

That Shy Students Are Disengaged

One, high school teachers think that shy students are disengaged and uninterested.

There are several reasons why teachers think this. Shy students tend to act aloof and don’t participate. They often sit in the back rows or in seats away from the center of the room and teacher. All of these are actions characteristic of someone who doesn’t care or value the class or content.

And of course, this could very well be true. But it could also be the opposite.

Shy students don’t participate or sit neat the action of the class because they don’t want to be called on or expected to speak up. They often suffer learning deficits due to their reluctance to ask for help, according to this report.

Whether or not they value or appreciate the class and/or instructor is a different question to answer.

That Shy Students Are Friendless

The second thing teachers think of shy students is that they might not have friends. Because shy students are quiet in their class and seem to be loners, teachers often think that’s how their students are outside of the classroom too.

Shy students may or may not have friends. Often shy students don’t participate in extracurricular activities like sports or clubs so they might not be very social.

However, this doesn’t mean they don’t have friends. Shy students usually have friends, like most all people. It may be that they have a small circle of friends since they aren’t involved in many social arenas, though.

That Shy Students Are Unhappy

Third, high school teachers think that their shy students are unhappy. This is often because shy students aren’t talkative and all smiles like their more extroverted peers, but it doesn’t mean they are unhappy.

We tend to see extroverted people as well-liked and happy. They laugh, demand more attention, and speak their mind whenever they feel like it. When they enter a room, everyone knows it. But, none of these actions necessarily mean one is happy, or not unhappy either.

The best way to know how your shy students feel is to get to know them, and ask them.

I say, get to know them first, because simply asking students if they’re happy is not going to elicit a reliable response. You must first establish some rapport before expecting a student to trust you enough to reveal anything personal.

4. That Shy Students Lack Ambition

Many high school teachers think their shy students lack ambition. Since shy students tend not to run for class president or captain of the football team, they’re considered followers, not leaders. But that’s not entirely true.

However, Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln both were characterized as awkward and shy. Despite this, they are well-known and accomplished far more than most of us! Many actors are also personally shy. Nicole Kidman, who’s won numerous acting awards including the most-esteemed, Oscar, has said she’s incredibly shy. Despite severe shyness, she’s exceled in film and television.

Just because students are shy doesn’t mean they lack ambition. Some may; some may not. Shyness is not about ambition one way or the other.

5. That Shy Students Are Just Like Them

Finally, what many teachers think of shy students is that they are just like them. And in this regard, teachers have it right.

There are shy teachers, and not so shy teachers. There are good teachers, and not so good teachers (if you’d like to read an article about the dark side of teaching, then look here for my article on 5 Bad Examples of Teachers).

Sometimes, you’ll find that shy students want help to overcome shyness, just like some shy adults. Sometimes, you’ll find that shy students are just fine being shy, and all they want is help narrowing their choices to support their personality-not the other way around.

Either way, teachers just need to get to know their shy students. Just like teachers need to get to know all of their students in order to be the best teacher for them.

Wrapping Up What Do Teachers Think of Shy Students

Teachers have many ideas about their shy students. Most agree that shyness can negatively impact student futures. However, we’ve seen that this doesn’t have to be the case.

Ultimately, though, the effects of shyness is really individual and dependent upon many other factors. If you, your child, or someone you know is shy, the best way to support them is to ask them about it and whether or not they see it as something ‘to overcome.’

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