I’m sure every teacher runs into their fair share of shy students over the years. Students who are hesitant to raise their hand. Kids who speak softly no matter how enthusiastically you encourage them to be emotive. I was one of those students way back when.
But I currently have one student who never talks. Ever. And I’m not quite sure how to handle it.
I was okay with it at first. It took me a moment to realize that it wasn’t just that she didn’t speak English, she didn’t speak at all. And then it took me a even longer to realize that this issue wasn’t going to vanish within a few days. Generally most shy kids warm up to me within the first week, easy.
There was one day, early on, where I came up with the genius idea of having her whisper an answer into my ear. I could see she was taking diligent notes, and I knew she knew the answer. So I leaned down to her level, and put my ear to her face.
It worked! She whispered the answer to me! And it was correct!
But that turned out to be a lone event. The next time I asked her to whisper an answer, she refused. These days, when I ask her, “How are you today?” she won’t even give me hand gestures. It takes cajoling to even elicit a half-nod from her.
Sometimes I’ve wondered if something traumatic happened to her. I’ve worried a little. Her hair is fashionably dyed and her sister recently painted her nails with fancy polka dot patterns, so it seems like she’s well-taken care of at home, but who knows? What else could motivate someone to be so persistently quiet, right?
But then I see her smile at a joke someone cracks, and I wonder if I’m just trying to force her to conform to my idea of what is right and acceptable. So what if she never talks in my class? Is that really a big deal?
Seeing how the other students treat her has been heart-warming. There were moments, especially in the beginning, when students were drawing a lot of attention to the fact that she wasn’t speaking, and I had to walk the delicate balance of rebuking them without making a bigger deal of the situation. I used to be quite shy. I know drawing more attention is the last thing needed.
But mostly, the students have shown her a lot of genuine love and affection. The loudest boy in the class declared that he really wanted to hear her talk because he was curious to hear her voice. But he didn’t say it in a mean way––he seemed genuinely curious. Another girl told me one day that she was sad, and when I asked why she said she was sad that this girl wasn’t talking. I said, “Aw, me too!”
I’ve been touched by the way the kids include her in activities, despite the fact that she won’t be shouting out answers during games and is therefore a bit of a handicap to have on one’s team. Several of them are very intentional in attempting to gently draw her out, and I love watching that.
I used to see it as my mission to get her to speak. But I don’t anymore.
This experience has taught me a little more about love and what it means to love someone the way they need. It actually doesn’t matter if she never speaks in my class. That may be my agenda, but it may not actually be what she needs. She may need to simply know that she is accepted as she is, without being forced to be anything else.
It’s so easy to tell yourself your motives are loving when they really aren’t. I saw this clearly the other day when I found out that she actually does whisper things to certain kids in the class she feels comfortable with––two girls in particular. I should have been happy to hear that, but my first reaction was, She talks to them and not me?!
My pride hurt a little. And I knew that had nothing to do with what was best for her.
I would like to see her speak. I would like to feel the accomplishment of winning over her trust, of helping her develop, of proving in some small way that I am a good teacher and person. But instead, I’m doing my best to love her. I’m doing my best to communicate that she is accepted as she is and valued for all the things she does do. I like to think that by doing that, I’m contributing to what will eventually lead to her coming out of her shell and finding her voice. Even if I don’t get to personally witness it.