3 Keys to Transforming the Shy Student into an Effective Leader

May 8, 2018

3 Keys to Transforming the Shy Student into an Effective Leader
The idea started after a poetry unit.

My students enjoyed distilling their experiences as middle schoolers into verses and stanzas. Afterward, students would ask, “Ms. Parker can we start a poetry club after school…please?”

At first, I thought, Why not? We could create poetry murals, announce and display a poem of the week, and end the year with a poetry slam. The ideas were endless, and they would all increase student engagement, collaboration, and ownership.

But I had a dilemma: Who would be the ideal student to lead this charge?

I could have taken the easy route and chosen the outspoken, popular student with the perfect grades; the student for whom rhyming, rhythm, leadership, and everything else seemed to come easy. Instead, I chose a non-traditional leader: a once-struggling reader who was a shy, introverted girl recently diagnosed with anxiety. Sometimes even giving her praise in public would cause her to shiver.

So how did she become an outspoken and effective leader of our poetry club? There were two things I had to help her develop fast: confidence and communication.

Using three simple approaches, I was able to integrate those aspects into lessons that not only benefited her but the entire seventh grade class. 

1. Encourage choice and personal expression

It started off with original affirmations. My future leader and the rest of the class were given the option of writing themselves a love letter or love poem. They were instructed to read it to themselves daily and memorize it. To assist, I showed clips of performance poetry and oratory clips to give my leader and the rest of the class a model for speaking with confidence and authority. I even modeled how I wrote and what I was thinking while I wrote my own love letter to help with their metacognition. 

I told them the purpose of this exercise was to accept themselves for who they were and to celebrate their strengths and their weaknesses. Writing these affirmations allowed my future leader to appreciate her personality. She started sharing more of her poetry aloud in small group settings, and then in front of the entire class. On several occasions, she received a standing ovation.

I added more choice and expression to my curriculum through monologues and speeches. This allowed students to think in multiple perspectives and emotions, and to better understand their audience. Being able to select a character and an emotion made them invest in the process, which caused them to put more effort into their task. One assignment included writing three pieces: one from the perspective of a bully, one from the perspective of a victim, and one from the perspective of a bystander/"upstander." The results created more meaningful dialogue on how people are affected by bullying. 

2. Push thinking with probing and clarifying questions

Great leaders are great thinkers, and they know how to ask and answer questions.   

During small group collaboration, I created a laminated collaborative roles chart for each student. Weekly roles included:

  • facilitator

  • timekeeper

  • motivator

  • speaker

  • writer

  • editor

  • resource manager
  •  
Each sheet included a description of the roles and sentence stems to encourage dialogue.  For example, one prompt read, “I did not understand your example. Can you paraphrase?” Another read, “So, what I heard is that you said 'X, Y, Z.' Can you elaborate on that?"

On the back was a rubric and reflection of collaboration. At the end of each small group session, students would discuss the effectiveness of their collaboration based on the rubric, explain how the group could improve collectively, and give individual feedback. This practice allowed my new leader to come out of her shell. Watching her evolve and use the chart to ask and answer questions made me proud. 

3. Offer timely encouragement

Sometimes leaders make mistakes, and sometimes leaders exceed expectations. In both cases, timely encouragement is warranted. Students, especially fearful ones, are looking for motivation, which can come in the form of small notes, public or private praise, and positive phone calls to a parent. My shy student loved when I read her poetry in class and called her a “poetry savant” or “poetry goddess.” It made her smile.

Giving responsibility is also a form of encouragement. It says: I trust you enough to put this into your hands. When I asked my new poetry club leader to lead the group after about two months of training, she gave a resounding yes. She had found her passion and a gift for expressing feelings from multiple perspectives in poetry. She also emerged as a beacon of hope for those who are typically overlooked.

Creating leaders out of introverts can be a challenge, but ignoring their fullest potential would be a huge defeat. 
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of American College of Education.

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