When I was at school, I was a massive swot. I wasn’t overly intelligent, but I worked incredibly hard. I’ve always loved to learn new things and I took a great deal of pride in producing work that reflected effort and creativity.
Yet, I hated school. I was just so unbearably shy – so socially anxious – that any area of the curriculum or school life that required confidence/social interaction/public speaking, caused dread, misery and upset. I saw everyone else as being super relaxed and confident – I was a pathetic freak because I couldn’t cope with normal life situations. As time went on, I was able to drop the ‘out-there’ subjects like Drama and PE and throw myself into academic subjects which tested my essay-writing skills, while allowing me to hide my inner-freak. I left school with awesome results, but my self-esteem was in the toilet. I’d had some fantastic teachers who had pushed me academically, but other than annual comments on my report that ‘she needs to put her hand up more,’ my lack of confidence was never tackled. Teaching ‘soft skills’ like confident public speaking, just wasn’t part of the educational dialogue at that time. Everyone was just expected to get on with it.
Nearly twenty years later with the roles reversed, I am driven by the need to make things better for the students I teach. More than anything, I want them to challenge themselves socially and grow their confidence and self-esteem, just as they would work towards targets in their academic subjects. It’s my hope that by opening up discussion of nerves and anxiety, we might just save our students from future years of avoidance, missed opportunities and feelings of worthlessness.
Here are 5 teaching strategies that I’ve found really effective in encouraging confident speaking and discussion:
- Always give ‘thinking time’ in class discussion. When I ask a question in class, I usually ask three times, while wandering around the room. I change the expression in my voice, the emphasis and sometimes the pace of the question. I wait ten seconds or more before choosing someone to answer/taking hands up etc. All students, but particularly nervous speakers or low ability pupils, need time to prepare an answer.
- Allow them to prepare feedback in pairs. Whether you want them to consider a question, respond to some stimulus or solve a problem, ask them to discuss this in pairs before answering in front of the class. For younger children, you can make this really structured by giving them set amounts of time each to speak, asking them to speak in turns or giving them speaking sentence openers. For SEND students that struggle to remember what they’ve discussed, they can write notes on a mini-whiteboard to help them answer. I tell my class that as I’m giving them time to prepare, I expect everyone to be ready to answer – then I’ll choose a name, use a name generator or pick out a lollipop stick with a pupils’ name on.
- Open up dialogue about nerves, anxiety, social anxiety, fear of public speaking. I found it particularly useful to spend ten minutes going over the physical symptoms of ‘fight, flight or freeze’ and why our bodies react this way. We talked about everything from dry mouth and palpitations to the need to have a nervous wee! We also delved into why the body is designed this way – how it expels fluids so that you can run away more quickly; why your heart beats faster to ensure blood is circulating to your major organs; that when you feel like time has stopped, it’s because your senses are heightening, ready to act. Not only did this allow students to realise that these reactions were normal, but also put a positive spin on them.
- Before a presentation, ask your students to write a ‘recipe for success’ and a ‘recipe for disaster.’ I love this task so much! It really pushes students to think about what they need to do to perform an effective, confident and calm presentation, and contrast how they would prepare if they wanted to do a terrible job and let nerves take over. When I was really struggling with public speaking myself, I found it incredibly useful (and amusing) to write my recipe for disaster. It was a big turning point for me, because I realised that I’d spent my entire life up to that point following the wrong recipe!
- Notice – listen – understand – but still challenge. When I come across a child who is too afraid to speak in class, I set them a challenge of putting their hand up once a half-term/fortnight/week/lesson. I usually tell them to get this out of the way at the beginning of the lesson, so they’re not worrying about it. This doesn’t work for everyone, but I’ve found this really successful with some students. You can see the mixture of relief and pride cross their face once they’ve ‘done the deed’, and wonder what they were so worried about. Even better, once this becomes a regular pattern, you can see them build up positive momentum. After a while you can’t shut them up!
Have I missed anything? Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!