Teens Are Protesting In-Class Presentations

Some students say having to speak in front of the class is an unreasonable burden for those with anxiety and are demanding alternative options.

For many middle- and high-school students, giving an in-class presentation was a rite of passage. Teachers would call up students, one by one, to present their work in front of the class and, though it was often nerve-racking, many people claim it helped turn them into more confident public speakers.

“Coming from somebody with severe anxiety, having somebody force me to do a public presentation was the best idea to happen in my life,” one woman recently tweeted. According to a recent survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, oral communication is one of the most sought-after skills in the workplace, with over 90 percent of hiring managers saying it’s important. Some educators also credit in-class presentations with building essential leadership skills and increasing students’ confidence and understanding of material.

But in the past few years, students have started calling out in-class presentations as discriminatory to those with anxiety, demanding that teachers offer alternative options. This week, a tweet posted by a 15-year-old high-school student declaring “Stop forcing students to present in front of the class and give them a choice not to” garnered more than 130,000 retweets and nearly half a million likes. A similar sentiment tweeted in January also racked up thousands of likes and retweets. And teachers are listening.

Students who support abolishing in-class presentations argue that forcing students with anxiety to present in front of their peers is not only unfair because they are bound to underperform and receive a lower grade, but it can also cause long-term stress and harm.

“Nobody should be forced to do something that makes them uncomfortable,” says Ula, a 14-year-old in eighth grade, who, like all students quoted, asked to be referred to only by her first name. “Even though speaking in front of class is supposed to build your confidence and it’s part of your schoolwork, I think if a student is really unsettled and anxious because of it you should probably make it something less stressful. School isn’t something a student should fear.”

“It feels like presentations are often more graded on delivery when some people can’t help not being able to deliver it well, even if the content is the best presentation ever,” says Bennett, a 15-year-old in Massachusetts who strongly agrees with the idea that teachers should offer alternative options for students. “Teachers grade on public speaking which people who have anxiety can’t be great at.”

“I get that teachers are trying to get students out of their comfort zone, but it’s not good for teachers to force them to do that,” says Henry, a 15-year-old also in Massachusetts.

To the thousands of teens who support the effort to do away with in-class presentations (at least enough to like a tweet about it), anxiety is no small issue. Students said they understood why older people might tell them to “suck it up,” but that doing so was unproductive. Some responses to the most recent viral tweet, though, noted that giving a presentation in spite of anxiety might reduce a student’s fear of public speaking.

Being a high schooler in 2018 is more stressful than ever. Academic demands on students are high, kids participate in more extracurricular activities than in the past, and they are saddled with extra hours of homework.

“Kids doing sports don’t get home till 7:00 p.m. I get home at 5:30 p.m. tonight but it’s going to get worse,”  Bennett says. “Kids ... can’t be holed up in their room every night till 1:00 a.m. finishing homework on their third Red Bull.” These stressors and more have led to an unprecedented level of anxiety in their generation. Anxiety is increasing at a faster rate than depression as the leading mental-health issue affecting teenagers, a recent study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found. Throwing things like in-class presentations on top of other stressors kids are dealing with, teens say, can be unbearable.

“Teachers think it’s just a fear,” says Jess, a 16-year-old in New Jersey. “We’ll skip school. I’ve skipped school a lot of times if I had to present. Even if a teacher lets me present alone in front of them I still wouldn’t because that’s how nerve-racking it is,” she said.

These students want more options. They say that every student has unique strengths and abilities and that they should be allowed to present their work in ways that speak to those strengths. This might mean presenting alone in front of the teacher, or choosing between several alternatives like producing a piece of art or an essay for private judgment instead of presenting their work orally.

“The resounding theory that education is holding on to right now is the idea of multiple intelligences,” says Travis Grandt, a high-school history teacher in Colorado who says he tries to accommodate students with special needs, including anxiety. “There [are] a lot of ways for kids to present information. It doesn’t have to be through a formal presentation.”

Joe Giordano, a high-school teacher in Baltimore, says that he’s also sympathetic to the movement away from mandatory in-class presentations. As an art teacher, he hosts “crit” sessions where students’ work is critiqued. He always gives the teenagers a choice as to whether or not they want to speak about their own work.

“It kind of irks me when I see a lot of other teachers say, ‘But we have to get them up there.’ These kids are living under more stressful situations than I did as a student. Their anxiety runs pretty high,” he said. “I know we should put them in uncomfortable situations, but if they suffer from anxiety they’re already in an uncomfortable situation. As a teacher I try to show compassion. It’s not about being a drill instructor.”

Kathleen Carver, a high-school history teacher in Texas, says teaching has changed since the days when she grew up. “I think in this day and age there [are] different pressures. We expect different things from our students,” she said. “We’re in a day and age where we have to acknowledge our students’ feelings. I have to listen to them and hear their feedback and respond to that. That’s how I can be a more effective teacher. If I ignored their feelings I don’t think they would like me or my class or walk away learning things.”

Those campaigning against in-class presentations said that it was important to distinguish between students with actual diagnosable anxiety disorders and those who might just want to get out of the assignment. Addie, a 16-year-old in New York, said that schools like hers already make accommodations for students with certain learning issues to get extra time on tests. She thinks similar processes could be put in place for students with public-speaking anxiety. “I think it’s important these accommodations are accessible, but that they’re also given to those who are need it instead of those who just say they don’t want to present,” she said. “There’s a big difference between nervousness and anxiety.”

Students who have been successful in the campaign to end in-class presentations credit social media. Unlike previous generations, high schoolers today are able to have a direct impact on their educational system by having their voices heard en masse online. Teenagers, most of whom are extremely adept at social media, say that platforms like Twitter and Instagram have allowed them to meet more kids at other schools and see how other school districts run things. They can then wage campaigns for changes at their own school, sometimes partnering with teens in other districts to make their voice louder.

Henry said that he’s seen the effects of these types of campaigns firsthand. This year his district shifted the school start time an hour and fifteen minutes later, something he and his fellow students campaigned for aggressively on social media, which he believes played a role in the decision. High-school students across the country have also waged social-media campaigns against discriminatory dress codes, excessive homework, and, most notably, to advocate for gun-control policies on campus. “Teens view social media as a platform to make changes,” Carver says.

Part of why students feel social media is such a powerful mechanism for changing education is because so many teachers are on these platforms. Nicholas Ferroni, a high-school teacher in New Jersey, said that “a lot of teachers use social media as a great way to learn methodologies.”

“Instead of trying to go to a school-board meeting with a bunch of adults in suits—that’s how it was—you can just talk to everyone directly,” said Addie. “We don’t have to do all that stuff formally. We can go online and say what we want to say and people have to listen to us.” “I think social media is a great way to reach educators,” said Bennett.

But when it comes to abolishing in-class presentations, not everyone is convinced.

“We need to stop preaching to get rid of public speaking and we need to start preaching for better mental health support and more accessibility alternatives for students who are unable to complete presentations/classwork/etc due to health reasons,” one man tweeted.

Some educators agree. “My thoughts are that we are in the business of preparing students for college, career, and civic life. Public speaking is a piece of that preparation,” says Ryan Jones, a high-school history teacher in Connecticut. “Now, some kids (many) are deathly afraid to do it, but pushing outside of comfort zones is also a big part of what we do.”