Social Anxiety in Students

I just read a very good blog post – one that should give educators cause to reflect.  I suggest you read it.

http://www.onlineschools.org/education-debate/william-chamberlain-i-hide-my-disability/

William Chamberlain poses the following questions:

  • What are you doing in your classroom for kids like me that some days are barely hanging on until they can get back home where they can relax?
  • Have you actively sought out the quiet kids or the ones that don’t seem to make friends and spend a few minutes with them?
  • If you go out of your way to make them more comfortable, they will be more successful in your classroom.

Looking at these questions reminded me of a student I had in History 12.  Let’s refer to him as Jon.

Jon hadn’t been very successful in previous Social Studies classes, but he wanted to take part in History 12.  His attendance was good, he scored approximately 60% on most assessments and he NEVER contributed to the conversation.  When it came time for presentations or group work he disappeared.  At first I didn’t figure it out, but soon it became apparent that he knew what we were up to and as soon as I was about to return to my normal lecture format he would miraculously reappear.

Once I tried to get ‘tough’ and I attempted to force him into taking on a speaking role in our Holocaust Coroners activity, but he did not want to play a role and rather left me a note.  I have kept it…

‘Mr. Dueck you are a good teacher and I really like your class.  You seem like a nice guy and I love the material.  I will not however, be taking part in any public presentations.  It does not matter what you say or do…I won’t do it.  Nothing on earth scares me more than speaking in front of others.  If you force me to do it, I will probably end up telling you to F*** Off, you will be forced to react to my comment, and we will all be worse off for it.  I will just avoid class until it is all over and you can give me a zero.’ –  Jon

I went home and shared this with my spouse who is not a teacher, and she leveled with me as well, explaining that her worst days of high school, without a doubt, were the public presentation days. ‘You guys [teachers] get up in front of people all the time, everyday – you just don’t get it.’

The next day I found Jon, nowhere near my classroom or the library where the rest were researching their presentations, and I asked if he cared to do a personal project on his days off.  He jumped at the chance and I told him that regular classes would resume on Monday.  After the weekend he was in his usual seat as predicted, the imminent threat had passed.

A few weeks later I noticed him doodling on his desk and instead of ripping into him about graffiti, I asked if I could buy him a sketchbook.  The resulting collection of artwork, a day-to-day account of our material as seen through the eyes of an artist, is a book I cherish to this day.

I see Jon from time to time and I carry his sketchbook to nearly all of my presentations.  Jon taught me a few things, or at least entrenched what I had suspected:

  1. It is my job to lower stress and anxiety in the classroom, not exacerbate it.
  2. I was the dictator in my classroom and the ‘keeper of the gate’ when it came to who could demonstrate knowledge, how it would be done and when.  The avenues in which I allowed a student to display knowledge would directly impact the extent to which he or she was able to.
  3. Learning is number one, engagement is critical, the method is malleable.  Let students, ‘Show what they know’.
  4. It is all about relationships.

ps.  Today Jon is a successful artist and lover of all things History…especially WWII.

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7 Comments

Filed under Assessment, Relationships, Sound Grading

7 responses to “Social Anxiety in Students

  1. I am humbled that you thought enough of my post to write one of your own. I don’t think there is any better praise than to have someone say they were inspired by something I wrote.

    I am really surprised Jon could explain himself so well. I didn’t even know I had a problem in high school, let alone be able to verbalize it. Thank you for sharing this story.

    • You opened a great conversation piece and one that is long overdue. I applaud your courage and candour to let people know that you face the hurdle of anxiety. Our students and colleagues need to know we too are human.

      I too was surprised that Jon was as thoughtful and eloquent as he was. It was indeed an eye-opening experience.

  2. Myron,
    What a beautiful post. Your lessons learned pave the way to #4; it’s about the relationship. What a wonderful gift he has given you.
    Your story reminds me of a student I have in my gr. 7/8 class. Last year, she arrived mid-way through the year, a shy gr. 7 girl who tiptoed her way through the day. When it came time for the annual oral presentation, like Jon, she refused. Instead, she agreed to say her speech in front of me and a few of her friends only. She did great.
    This year, I expected the same, and was quite willing to do so. Instead, on her scheduled day, she got up in front of everyone, and read her speech. No, she didn’t get the top mark, but she showed the most growth of her peers. Her comfort amongst her peers had increased, and by letting her choose the method, she tasted success. Like Jon, she gave me a gift I’ll not forget.

    • Thanks Heather. I guess we as teachers are often pre-wired to put kids through the ringer because that is what happened to us. Congratulations – it would appear that you offered the girl in your class an environment that was safe, accessible and welcoming; it should not come as a surprise that she responded so favourably to it.

  3. Scott wisenburg

    Great strategies Myron! Your presentations and writing style reminds me of a powerful book that guided me into the field of elementary education: Starting From Scratch by Steven Levy. (now several years old but the emotional message remains just as strong today)

    • Thanks Scott. I wish I had more time to write – it seems to always take a back seat to early everything else. I will look up that book.

      Enjoy the rest of summer.

  4. Hello Myron,

    Just happened to stumble upon your blog, but I’m truly impressed by what I’ve read here. You’ve provided a strong model for educational empathy.

    I’ve suffered from social anxiety most of my life, and I don’t know how I would have gotten through school were it not for those teachers who saw through (even if they failed on some levels to understand) my difficulties, established a relationship with me, and wanted me to succeed.

    Thanks for making a difference; the “Jons” of the world need more teachers like you.

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