Faking it: Dealing with shyness in the classroom


Every time I meet a new group of students, I ask them to tell me about themselves. Where are they from? What have their experiences with English or literature been in the past? And what’s something most people don’t know about them?

These are questions I answer myself, and I always tell my students on the first day this “secret” about myself: most people don’t know that I’m actually very shy.

It’s important for me to share this with them for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it’s not at all obvious. My classroom persona is actually a bit over the top. I’m very smiley, I crack bad jokes, and I address behaviors that don’t meet my expectations mostly through humor. If students avoid the front rows, for example, I make a big show of surprise and then explain that I went to extra trouble to bathe and put on deodorant. 

I also think it’s important to bring shyness into the conversation because, in every class, there’s usually a solid contingent of students who would rather not speak. Ever. Of course, in a language-learning classroom (right now I teach English as a foreign language in Paris) this won’t work. Students have to open their mouths, engage, and interact to make any serious growth in their English. So before I ask students to interact with each other, I let them know that it’s a challenge for me, too. 

And I tell them it’s okay to fake it.

Because that’s really the only way I know of dealing with my shyness, and it’s been my strategy ever since I began teaching in 2004. I just pretend I’m not shy. I say to myself, what would an outgoing person do right now? And then I do it. Most of the time, it works fine, and I’m sometimes even able to forget that deep down inside I’d infinitely prefer to be tucked safely away in the stacks of a library. 

Also, faking it has its compensations. I always, always learn something from my students, which wouldn’t happen if I let them stay silent. And pushing myself in the classroom stretches me and has made me more able to enter social situations that previously would have terrified me.


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