Confessions of an Introverted Educator
Ok, I’m not exactly shy. I am an introvert, and in modern education, that can feel like what Jerry Maguire famously called an up-at-dawn siege. Schools are inherently challenging for introverts- a classroom full of students, a faculty lounge full of colleagues, and not a quiet or private space to be found. Add in the latest trends, like Professional Learning Communities and Student Centered Learning, and the level of personal interaction expected of teachers is overwhelming to even the moderate introvert.
Much ink has been spilled recently on the risk of burnout for the introverted educator. Multiple studies have actually shown that introversion is a reliable predictor of who will leave the profession early. And Harvard Business Review has chronicled the challenges for introverts across modern workplaces using the term “Collaborative Overload.” If studies are correct, a higher percentage of the population is on the introversion side of the spectrum than previously thought, meaning half of teachers and students are dealing with this personality-environment disconnect. (Anyone wondering why so many students are on home instruction for school related anxiety?) So, what pitfalls can the introverted teacher expect? And what can those of us who are energized by alone time and drained by social interaction do to protect ourselves in the face of this daily tension?
You may be thought of as aloof by your colleagues.
I’ll never forget that moment during my fifth year at my current school, that one of our secretaries exclaimed, “Oh my goodness, Todd, you’re so verbal.” What a strange thing to marvel at, considering that I talk for a living. But she was right in noticing that it took me years to become comfortable with more than just a handful of my colleagues. As our relationship grew, that same secretary told me that I was thought of as stuck-up by a lot of the folks I worked with. Well, I’d like to think I’m not a snob and I hope that as the years pass fewer and fewer people think that of me. But I’m certain that my introversion played a role in that original perception.
If you’re an introvert just starting out in a school, realize that perceptions matter. And if your colleagues don’t like you, they can make your life difficult in any number of ways. Be intentional about getting to know people. Do simple things like learning names quickly and saying hello by name in the copy room and as you walk the halls. Don’t sit with the same person at every single after-school meeting. Put yourself out there even once a month- it can make a world of difference.
And you’ll be accused of playing favorites by the students.
“True happiness consists not in the multitude of friends, but in the worth and choice,” said Renaissance poet Ben Jonson. Introverts prefer to have a small circle of relationships rather than a broad network of acquaintances and that presents problems in the classroom. It’s very easy to find a couple of students in your classes that you click with and to develop a connection with them that other students will notice, and resent. Though it’s not your intention, your natural modes of interaction may make some students feel unimportant, and that’s not good for either of you.
It’s helpful to use protocols for class discussions so you include all students in the conversation. And during direct instruction do something simple, like calling on names from a class set of popsicle sticks, so you don’t end up having a private conversation with one student in front of 25 others.
Bell to bell is swell.
During observations, teachers are hyper-aware of time on task. But day-in and day-out, we all have downtime in our classrooms. As an introvert, that “downtime” can feel like just the opposite as students begin to engage in every introvert’s kryptonite, small talk.
Planning is therefore critical to ensure that unstructured class time is minimized. It’s not only good pedagogy, it’s ruthless self-preservation. Also, for me, performing in front of the class is not draining in the same way that conversation can be. While it’s not alone time, try to find some peace in those times when you’re giving an old-fashioned lecture.
Your real world relationships may suffer.
Many of my friends from high school and college have jobs in the private sector. Some of them have private offices, with doors on them! (Or at least cubicles and a good pair of headphones.) These friends often call each other from their offices or on their drive home. But teachers don’t have offices, or any semblance of privacy. The last thing we have the energy to do on the way home from school is talk to yet another human being. Even if that person is a long distance friend who we miss like crazy.
Be intentional about engaging your real world friends in introvert-teacher appropriate ways. Take a couple of minutes during lunch, hide somewhere with wifi, and write your old roommate a quick email. Don’t just read, participate in your college group chat whenever there’s a conversation going. And make a monthly schedule of who you’re going to call on your off days (you only work 180 days a year!). I am guilty of letting my relationships go because I find the daily routines of teaching so draining. And that’s not a sacrifice I should be willing to make for my job.
Be self-aware and proactive
Finally, if you are an introvert teacher, own it. Know thyself and do what you have to do to protect yourself from burnout. Here are some simple ideas.
Don’t hit the snooze button- you like quiet more than you like sleep. Get to school early, definitely before students start arriving. It will change your whole day.
Find a place to hide on your prep. Most days, I actually sit in the back of another teacher’s calculus class and put on headphones. No one can find me, and even if they do, they probably won’t interrupt the other person’s class to come talk to me.
Sign up for introvert-friendly extras. We are expected to do more than “just teach” in our schools. Volunteer for solo jobs, like curriculum writing, or for small, long-term committees where you can develop the kind of deeper relationships that you crave.
Interact with each of your students in a way that works for you. I’ve started using Google Classroom. I can comment on student work and send messages electronically which I prefer to individual conferences with students.
Teaching is a challenging profession for everyone, but especially for introverts. But if you are aware of those challenges and take practical steps to protect yourself, you can be more than a burnout statistic. You can be a thriving veteran who enjoys each school year even more than the last. Good luck and I hope you enjoyed your quiet time reading this blog!
Todd Curtis is a social studies teacher at Howell High School.