10/09/2013 01:05 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Red Pen in Your Head: Why You Should Start Speaking Up in Class


You're sitting in class. You did the reading, so you're actually prepared. The professor starts with a question. In an instant, two or three hands -- usually the same ones every time - shoot up. You:

(a) know the answer. And you could say it, but... what if your voice shakes? What if you say it in an awkward way? What are the others going to think?

(b) can feel the answer start to form in your head. You're not 100 percent sure, but you're psyched about the idea. Should you raise your hand anyway and go for it? What if you're wrong? Is everyone going to think you're an idiot?

(c ) are pretty sure you know the answer, but you practice saying it in your head first. No, that doesn't sound smart enough, you think, so you erase and try again, editing as you go. You're crossing your own sentences out with a red pen in your head. By the time you come up with the perfect answer, the discussion has moved on without you.

If you answered yes to any of the above, you probably know you have a "problem" (insert obnoxious line here about how that's the first step), but really, let's talk about why learning to speak up in class seriously matters -- and I don't mean because it counts for part of your grade.

One of the most mind-blowingly dumb things about American education is the way it values what you look like on paper above all else.

Grades and test scores, we're told, count more than anything. We slog our way through high school fearing that every stupid quiz will somehow be engraved in stone on our college applications. When we get to college, we figure we'll do more of the same, because employers and grad schools will want to see those numbers, too.

When it comes to speaking up in class, maybe you're good at it. Maybe you're not. But there's not much reason to care, since which college admissions counselor cares about that?

So can I hashtag this? Because I need you to know that's just not how things work in the #realworld.

I'm not saying that good grades and test scores don't matter. I'm saying that being able to express yourself and your ideas matter just as much. You're coming of age in an information economy. You are far less likely than your parents' generation to work for the same employer for your entire life (how boring does that sound, anyway?). You're probably going to have a lot of different jobs, and you'll get the best work by being able to show employers that you're not just someone who turns in work on time, but who contributes good ideas to discussions and is brave enough to disagree.

I'm not saying this to freak you out. I'm telling you so you can avoid what my friend Jahleese calls the "senior year slap in the face" -- that moment you wake up senior year of college and realize how little you understood about life after college.

But why harp on class participation? Because speaking up in class teaches you to assert your ideas in a group of people. It's like training wheels for work.

Classroom discussion is where you learn how to debate an idea and stick with an opinion, even when others don't agree -- and not take it personally, either. Raising your hand when you're not sure you have the right answer helps you take risks with your ideas and put yourself out there.

You might be thinking that some people are just naturally good at speaking up, and others just aren't -- game over. Not true. Speaking up is a skill that you have to learn like any other, whether it's speaking Spanish or doing calculus or changing a tire. And yeah, when you're just starting out at learning Spanish, you might accidentally order your fajitas with lightbulbs instead of chicken. Typical beginner mistake. But over time you'll improve. Same is true of raising your hand.

Let go of what you've been told by the college application industrial complex: banish the idea that grades are everything. Make room for a new focus: how you advocate for yourself and your ideas. Even if it scares you. Because the real world is out there waiting, and these are the skills that matter there.

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