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.
2 thoughts on “Teacher Life: The Girl Who Doesn’t Talk”
I was “the girl who never talks” I can relate. It was not personal. I would talk one on one with a best friend, I talked at home, I talked to family, I even had a boyfriend. My silence in the classroom began in elementary school. It made me a target for bullying. I still made the choice not to talk.
After I graduated high school the summer before I began my freshman year at university I went to a doctor. To be more specific I went to a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with social anxiety. I was prescribed a medication in the class of benzodiazepines.
The first day at university I went to my first class, and I was a different person. I participated in debates, I raised my hand to express my views, or to voluntarily answer a purposed question in class. I could finally say what I wanted to say. I felt like I was in a prison of my own mind for my whole life up to that point. I also had struggles that were not as easy to notice as my silence. One of the biggest ones was sweating. I would sweat through 2 tee shirts. To hide it I would wear a lot of thick black clothes, so that no one could see. My heart would race when attention was drawn to me, or when I was in fear it would.
I am an adult now in my mid thirties. I have two children. I also have my old enemy anxiety. I still receive medical care for it. It is manageable, and day to day is tolerable. My biggest regret is not seeking treatment sooner. I also found out there was a genetic component I did not even know about as a child. My father had his own unique battles with anxiety. The title as “the girl who never talks” still haunts me to this day. I wonder if I would have gone to a doctor when I was young for example in elementary school what could have been? Could I have had a positive school experience to reflect back on instead of the negative experience I had?
Wow, thank you so much for sharing your story (for some reason I am only seeing this comment now). I am so glad you were able to get the help you needed as a young adult and were able to understand how even genetics played a role in what you experienced. That is huge. I think social anxiety and anxiety in general are far more common than we might think, and I hope that they continue to become more normalized in society so that people can find more help at a young age, as you mention, rather than being stigmatized. I hope that you also continue to find increased peace about the past as well as hope and joy in the fullness of the present. ❤️