“Next student, please.”
The phrase hollered in the monotonous drone of my English teacher over and over again was enough to send shivers down my spine.
Another student had finished delivering their speech, and I was another four minutes closer to having to take the stage.
If I, an experienced debater and spoken word poet, was filled with anxiety, I’d wager my classmates were doing far worse. Yet, we had no choice but to persist, to stand and stutter through our four minutes of torture, before collapsing into a frail pile of nerves.
Our education system is one whose structure overtly emphasises public speaking, speech, or presentation skills, with its importance coming second only to exam results and academic achievements.
From debates in English class to presentations for biology. If these projects were nothing but extra credit electives, there would be nothing to fear, but “coursework”, also known as public presentations, make up an indispensable part of a student’s final grade, making them utterly inescapable.
It would be completely unheard of to mandate every student to undertake leadership roles, participate in theatre and the arts, or compete in triathlons. So why public speaking?
My guess is that because it’s easy: a teacher merely has to set a topic and kick back for hours while students stumble through their presentations. However, this is nothing but a shallow lesson plan that disregards the mental health of students.
Especially with up to three-quarters of the world’s population suffering from some form of anxiety from public speaking, it seems nonsensical to me that it’s in practically every syllabus and made required in almost every subject.
The speaker has an excellent vantage view of every action in the audience: they see every lip that twitches into a barely hidden smirk, hear every bored yawn, and notice every pair of rolled eyes with every syllable they utter.
School children can’t be expected to have the attention span of saints, and after dozens of droning speeches, they’re bound to be exhausted.
But for the unfortunate speaker caught between the crossfires of their boredom? The muffled laugh mocks their stutter. The murmured conversations ridicule their speech. Every fidgeting student is bored of their speech and of them.
Anxiety only heightens these observations: while one may rationalise inaudible conversation as other students practising for their own speeches, to someone overcome with anxiety, everything feels like a personal and direct blow.
Teenagers happen to be especially susceptible to attacks on their confidence. As they are only beginning to form a concrete sense of identity, they belong to an age where social connections and the perception of friends are crucial to their self-worth. The fear of becoming a laughing stock and ostracised for humiliating blunders is enough to keep any student up all night.
This paranoia can become all-consuming. For days before a presentation, students may obsessively rehearse, fearing a public failure. As such, anxiety usually causes people to blank out or have a squeaky voice, mistakes become unavoidable, and the fear of social alienation returns threefold.
This then begs the question: is a student’s ability to give a presentation a good yardstick to determine their worth? The answer to me is simple. Sometimes, a student may be more skilled thanks to their public speaking skills. However, the ability to present is only one of many skills a student can have. It’s simply not worth it to focus so severely on a skill very few jobs will demand of you in the future. A doctor doesn’t need to give a PowerPoint presentation, but they do need to have confidence in themselves, which is only diminished via public speaking projects.
Public speaking can be a transformative education tool, but only if it is done right. Most public speaking projects must be paired with counselling to help students overcome their anxiety and ensure they’re not left to drown in the deep end.
Until then, there are more important skills that are valued in the 21st century that schools can focus on. Communication and teamwork skills, IT skills, and even leadership skills: schools are meant to facilitate the multi-faceted growth of its students, not make them doubt their position in society.
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