How to Speak Up for Yourself

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Have you ever lost your voice? Be it from a nasty bout with the flu, screaming at a game, or laughing so hard you couldn’t breathe? It’s a helpless feeling, one where your most reliable way of communicating has been taken from you through no fault of your own. In not being able to speak up, we forfeit a bit of our autonomy, having to rely on others to get our needs met. Now, imagine that being done on purpose, out of fear or rejection. Scary thought, right?

Advocating for yourself is can be scary. You may be one of few willing to speak up during a tense moment, or maybe speaking up in the past has brought about some ugly responses. It’s valid. You’re not weak for wanting to sit things out when speaking up is tough. Yet learning the art of advocating for yourself will give you a leg-up in school and in life. Here are a few tips on how (and when and why) to speak up.

Let no one speak for you

Picture it: you’re at dinner with friends or family, and that one person decides to order for the table. Sometimes, it’s a hit – a whole table of fries or breadsticks to nosh on until the main meal arrives. Other times, this may feel unsettling, like having your choice taken away from you. Let a small scenario like this be a stepping stone in exercising your voice. Acknowledge what you’d like instead. You may get pushback or have someone grow annoyed with you. But making sure you’re getting your needs met outweighs temporary discomfort. 

Acknowledge when you need help

Stretch the above thought process regarding getting your needs met to interacting with teachers. Speaking up about troubles you may be having with a subject or test, or even with another student or teacher, may be intimidating, but again remind yourself of your needs. That’s not selfish; it’s how you meet your goals of success during your middle school years.

Trusting your voice

This is the most important skill of all. Middle school is the ground on which your identity begins to be built. Your likes begin to solidify, your interests wax and wane, your voice lowers or raises, and what you may have thought was set in stone is now growing more fluid.  This can be a time of awkwardness and uncertainty, of questioning and experimenting, so beginning to trust your voice here is paramount. Practice hearing yourself speak up in the mirror. Literally listen to how your chosen words leave your mouth. Be kind and easy with yourself as you continue growing into who you are. Eventually, advocating for yourself will become second nature.

The truth is, in advocating we draw a line between what others want of us and what we want of ourselves. There’s an uncomfortability that’s ever present. As you grow and continue speaking, those who believe in you and want the very best for you will remain.

Ron Shapiro

Essay Specialist

Ron Shapiro has been a high school English teacher with Fairfax County Public Schools for 30 years, with a total of 45 years in the classroom. Originally from Wilmington, Delaware, he received a B.A. in English Education from the University of Delaware. He taught in the Newark School District for 15 years. During that time, he became a fellow of the Pennsylvania Writing Project, took writing co...

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Shannon Jeffries

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Shannon Jeffries is an educator, college access advocate, and writer. Hailing from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Shannon developed a love of writing and teaching at a young age. She went to The Ohio State University, where she studied psychology. It was there, in Ohio’s state capital, that she developed an interest in educational access and mental wellness. Coupled together, these interests led Sh...

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Joi Donaldson

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