The power of assertiveness

When I was a high school senior, my Presbyterian church youth group took a “college caravan” trip to Michigan.

As soon as we had all piled into the “Rev-mobile” – yes, we called it that – our youth pastor Jay Groat announced it would be an “assertiveness training” weekend.

You want to change seats? No whining or passive-aggressive behavior allowed. Just say: “I want to sit up front now, so I need you to switch with me.”

You want to stop for food? Don’t sit back and hope someone else will suggest it. Say: “That Bagel Factory – I want to go there right now.”

I don’t remember if assertiveness training was a business buzzword back in 1984, and I’m not sure if Jay’s intentions were literal or ironic, but I actually learned a lot about assertiveness on that road trip.

Sadly, my 17-year-old self might have waited for someone else to suggest lunch or change the radio station or even ask for a bathroom. It’s not that I wasn’t self-confident, but assertiveness – being very direct about what you want or a perceived injustice – somehow seemed “not nice.”

This past weekend in Boston, while watching a variety of high school students from around the country compete in the Harvard Pre-Collegiate Economics Competition, I was reminded of that college caravan weekend and how important it is to train young people to assert themselves, especially girls and students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Here are two teams I observed:

  • Team One: Four boys of various nationalities, representing an exclusive West Coast prep school. On nearly every question they missed, they “challenged” the moderator. They sat forward in their seats, talked loudly and constantly asked for score checks. I learned later that they had successfully challenged one of the written test questions as well. They oozed assertiveness and confidence.
  • Team Two: Four girls, also of various nationalities, representing a Title I public school from Florida. They were friendly and obviously very bright, but when their opponents got credit for a wrong answer or the moderator failed to follow the rules (which happened a lot), they just sat there, quietly, not objecting. They were nice.

Why did these boys feel empowered to speak up? Why didn’t the girls, even when obvious mistakes were made?

Who do you think was more successful in the competition? Who is more likely to secure a high-powered job in the future? Or run for political office?

I suspect there are many causes for the boys’ assertiveness and girls’ lack of it – rooted in family, culture, gender, economics, privilege and schooling. Prep school boys are trained to be leaders. Girls in high-poverty schools? Not so much.

There will be many consequences as well, in school, in the workforce and in life.

We know assertiveness matters. In the classroom every day, the students who are willing to ask questions, request a seating change, question a teacher’s mistake and raise issues of injustice are more successful than their peers. They feel in control of their own education and destiny.

What’s disturbing is that too often, parents and schools discourage rather than encourage assertiveness. Be nice, behave, get along.

When does this happen? Every time a parent complains to a teacher, rather than expecting their child to speak up for him- or herself. Every time a teacher shuts down a student challenge, feeling threatened by a question like “why is this important?” Every time a principal censors a student newspaper, afraid to see bad but truthful news in print. Every time a school authority values simple compliance over authentic student engagement.

Every time, we send a message to these students: You don’t have power. We make the decisions. Don’t bother to ask questions.

If we want to address the achievement gap – both in school and in our society – we need to start by making sure all of our young people are trained to assert themselves. I want to see those girls feel empowered to say, “Hey, you’re not supposed to re-read the question for them,” or “Why did they get 30 seconds when the rules said 15?” Respectfully, yes, but with confidence.

If we can’t give everyone an “assertiveness training weekend,” we at least need to find some way to work assertiveness into our curriculum and our school policies. Otherwise, our attempts to achieve equity are not going to get us very far.