When I met my wife in May of 2011, I did not understand her. There was an obvious attraction but we were (and still are) very different people. We spent a lot of time early on in our relationship trying to understand what made the other one tick and these conversations eventually focused on the difference between extroversion and introversion. In fact, it was this 2010 article in Psychology Today that was my first big step to understanding her. Sure – I’ve always understood the extroversion/introversion spectrum intellectually, but that doesn’t mean I had really taken time to understand how those differences manifest themselves in everyday life. Fast forward to the present and I find myself more aware and informed about introversion but still pretty helpless in how best to accommodate those differences in friendships, family interactions, and the classroom. Rather than losing myself in wonderings of accommodation, I figured that I should reach out into the internet ether to share my findings thus far and ask for help. To start us off, I want to look at introversion through student-student, student-teacher, teacher-teacher, and teacher administrator interactions.
We sometimes fail to realize that a majority of a student’s day is focused on student-student interactions. Some interactions are direct like academic and social conversations, texts/tweets/instagrams, group work, and the like. Others are indirect like ambient student noise, physical proximity, odors, tapping pencils, and the multitude of other stimuli floating around a classroom. As adults, we are responsible for creating environments in which students can thrive so what do our classrooms actually look like from the introverted or extroverted student’s perspective?
I like to think of myself as a progressive teacher inside a progressive school and I will be the first to admit that my classroom is sometimes an introvert’s nightmare. Most work is done in some sort of partnership with other students, there are always loud noises like tools or music, and your needs are best met when you are “proactive in your learning” (read: extroverted). Many students ask to work in quieter spaces but quiet space is at a premium here and I don’t like students to wander too far past where I can reasonably keep track of my flock. If I try to force the class into a quiet space as a whole, then all project and tool work is forced into the fringes and the extroverts (and most of the 9th grade boys) are practically twitching and unable to learn themselves without being expressive. Once you factor in the complications of a whole student – it gets even messier. The student that seems like the stereotype “book worm” introvert may not actually be a strong reader. The student that needs quiet space to work may not have the study skills to really manage their time well in isolation. How do we effectively differentiate the learning environment to meet each of these students at some reasonably proxy of their ideal?
Have you ever said something like, “Hey everybody, we’re going to do some casual presentations at the end of the period. Try to summarize your thoughts on the reading into a 60 second presentation.” I sure have! Presentations and other verbal assessments are ubiquitous in schools. My logical brain insists that this is a rational requirement since many of us have to present or communticate in our professional or personal lives. But then my other brain calls B.S. First of all, many professionals only communicate in small groups or 1-1 without ever presenting to a large group. Second, you just sabotaged the learning for your most extreme introverts. This is one area I have had some success as I either give very little notice for “casual presentations” (so they can’t stress instead of learning) or I give options for presentation that may include a presentation as one option and a written submission as another.
What about something as simple as asking the class, “Does that make sense?”. Sounds like a feedback opportunity for only your extroverts. Do I do it all the time? Guilty. I’ll often try to assuage the guilt by offering an alternate feedback opportunity like posting a question to google classroom or having a 1-1 chat but I still don’t feel like introverts are heard in my class as much as they should be.
Here is a rough thing to consider. In a 2001 study, many teachers believed that extroversion correlated with intelligence and academic success and that introversion did not. I would like to say that I am not ignorant enough to believe that but I am guilty of just writing the following comment for a student.
Janet is generally a good student and likes to be very independent. I suspect this independence is also a manifestation of her severe shyness. Her shyness, which sometimes feels like a deliberate avoidance of communication, has a tendency to result in miscommunications, missed instructions, and lack of peer input. At this point, it is significantly holding her back and stunting her academic and personal growth. Shyness and introversion are fine by themselves but they must be overcome when communication is necessary.
There it is again – the ever-present elephant in the classroom – our own biases and perspectives. How do we create a learning space where we can defy the belief that extroversion is the only way to demonstrate intelligence and give reasonable opportunities for introverts to succeed.
At this very moment I am hiding in a conference room so I can escape noise for a brief while and get work done. Call it “recharging” or just being productive but sometimes I am out of juice and am not in a place where I can collaborate with other teachers. Think about it – we spend five to six hours a day in extreme collaboration mode as we juggle the needs of 30 students. In this brief respite prep period, that time right after school, or sometimes even right before school, I need my space to get in the zone and be with myself. When you disturb that time with mandatory “collaborative” faculty meetings, a chatty coworker, or other group responsibilities – it wears me down. I can’t even imagine the effect for someone more introverted than myself. In other words, respect your colleagues space and listen for signals on whether this is (or isn’t) a good time to chat or plan something. Also, respect thyself and take the time if you need it.
Ever read the book Death by Meeting? I think this reality is even more pronounced in education, and especially so for introverted faculty. On the other hand, we don’t want everybody off in their own silos doing there own thing and isolated from the rest of their colleagues. I believe this marks an opportunity for administrators to consider a few things when planning meetings. First and foremost is, can this be put into an email? If you are just delivering content or information, do it in an email and give an opportunity for in-person follow-ups (i.e. office hours). Second, determine if you are meeting to solve a problem and have a discussion or if you are creating an issue or discussion to fill an already scheduled meeting. We can all tell when the meeting was planned last minute and feels inauthentic. Third, could the issue or discussion take place (or at least start with) smaller groups or partnerships? Perhaps even replace an occasional meeting with “take a colleague out for coffee”. Casual and unprompted collaboration can be powerful and gives an opportunity for introverts (who often perform better 1-1) to have a more powerful voice in their community. And don’t worry about what they discuss – chances are that they’ll talk about work and share problems or solutions they’ve been thinking about. Lastly, hold office hours for your faculty. Have a time that you are just present and your faculty can find you to chat, share a problem, or otherwise touch base. Just like kids, teachers just need a chance to be heard sometimes.
As a consultant and frequent sounding board for visitors, I hear a lot of administrators frustrated by how their faculty isn’t open to new ideas or is resisting progressive change. While I have a lot of opinions here (see my previous article) I want to touch on a slightly more targeted consideration. Like any professional, teachers pursued this career because it interested them and those interests range from the ideological “let’s improve the world through education” to the practical “woo-hoo, summers off!”. That is completely reasonable. We all do this. There are plenty of jobs that interest me but don’t match on a practical level; they may require travel, physical ability, or just plain look boring on the day-to-day level. I suspect that some teachers choose teaching based on the assumption of what the experience has been for the last 100 years – content delivery, order, teacher as leader, etc. As an introvert that may look doable or even desirable. However, if you look at where progressive education is headed, things start to look a bit messier – thinking on your feet, unpredictability, student-centered learning, and projects. That’s a wholly different expectation of a teacher and that’s the catch – administrators may be asking some of their teachers to be someone that they’re not. That leaves administrators with a choice – find a way to give your introverted faculty an opportunity to recharge in that environment, a way to realistically succeed given who they are as your expectations change … or allow them to move on with your blessing to somewhere else. That may sound harsh but imagine this scenario for a moment. A forestry science researcher spends most of their time outdoors and loves their job. A decade into their career technology, funding, or circumstance brings them into the office to work on grant writing and general managerial tasks. That forestry major probably chose that career because being outside makes them feel good. If all of a sudden they’re spending their days sedentary and indoors, would we be surprised that they are not being their best selves? Of course not! So let’s be honest with ourselves and bring these types of things into the open, share what we think, and be ok with the fact that someone may have to either adjust or move-on.
Know thyself and know thy health. The Atlantic posted an article last month called “Why Introverted Teachers Are Burning Out”. In it it discussed a myriad of challenges for introverted teachers but I’m going to borrow one passage that spoke to me the most.
…Little explained how introverts can “act as extraverts” and adopt culturally scripted behavior traits (what he calls “free traits”) for limited amounts of time. But he warned that “protracted free-traited behavior may compromise emotional and physical health.” In other words, Little’s findings confirm that introverted teachers are at risk of burning out.
Introversion is not a disability – it’s an essence of character that is shared by nearly half of our human population. With our society so focused on extroversion, we’re missing out on the knowledge and experience of that significant fraction of humanity. We need to take a step back to evaluate how to recognize and accommodate introversion before we burn all of those teachers (and students) out.