I am an introvert who spends his days interacting with 140 seventh and eighth graders. Noise and chaos often overwhelm me although I believe that both are necessary for the learning process. I struggle to “be present” in the crowd and often find myself wanting to withdraw into my own world. I believe that relational engagement is critical to student engagement, and yet I have a hard time with start of a semester, trying to see students as individuals rather than six class periods.
I’ve had moments when I wondered if teaching was the wrong profession for me.
When I first began as a teacher, I forced myself to be extra visible on campus. After hearing my college professors talk about the need for “team players” and collaboration, I made an effort to plan lessons with other teachers even though I felt most comfortable planning projects alone. I ate lunch in the staff lounge even though I wanted to read a book. I chaperoned dances and attended sporting events so that the students would feel supported. I felt guilty that I didn’t look more “high energy” when leading a class discussion.
Within the first year of teaching, I found that I couldn’t keep it up. Lunchtime was more exhausting than teaching, and I found myself quietly leaving the staff lounge in order to have some think time. I quit two committees, and instead I volunteered to help them with independent projects. It was a slow transition of giving myself the permission to be an introvert, but I figured out how to carve a space for myself in an often extrovert-dominated field.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve used:
- Student conferences. I meet one-on-one with every student once a week. Instead of wandering around—monitoring the class or endlessly lecturing, I keep the direct instruction short and schedule lots of one-on-one time. This keeps me from burning out, and it helps students get valuable face time with their teacher. This has taught me that being an introvert can actually be an asset to student engagement. These conferences allow students to feel known on a personal level by their teacher.
- Introverted hobby. I write often. If I’m not writing blog posts, I’m up early in the morning working on a novel or a column. I spend my lunch periods painting or drawing. Those activities leave me feeling restored and ready to deal with the second half of the day.
- Noise limit. I can handle small doses of noise, but I have a threshold where it becomes overwhelming. For this reason, I drive to work with no external stimulus: the radio is off. It’s my chance to reflect on how things are going. I also limit noise in my room. It’s not silent, but it isn’t loud either. My students get a high level of peer-to-peer talk time, and they can listen to music on headphones during independent project time. However, I require them to keep the volume to a moderate level.
- Permission to be alone. I give myself the permission to withdraw. I used to feel like I had to attend every sporting event to support my students. I felt like I had to coach sports. I felt the need to allow students to come in before school and hang out. Now I see that I’m a better teacher when I’m not exhausted. In the same vein, I don’t go to the staff lounge for lunch.
- Volunteering for introverted projects. I am the first to volunteer to design a logo or a website. I’ll write a proposal for a committee. I enjoy editing videos and podcasts. In this way, I get to be indispensable to the school while still having ownership over the projects and working independently.
- Social media. I still need community to challenge my thoughts about teaching and push me to refine my craft. I have a few good friends that I meet for coffee or for a pint. However, I have also found community through social media. Often, we plan our projects together in direct messages, Google chats, or Voxer conversations. I love these interactions because they have built-in think time. They’re both synchronous and asynchronous, and they often have a level of depth that doesn’t necessarily happen in the staff lounge.
- Awareness. People who don’t know that I’m an introvert assume that I’m standoffish, shy, or even angry. I’ve had to explain that my introversion is why I do well as a listener one-on-one, but large group collaboration kills me. This is one of the things I share with fellow teachers on the first day our school assembles. It’s one of the first conversations I have when we get a new administrator. I may not be hanging around the staff lounge, but I’ll quietly write a note of encouragement to someone who needs it. I may not be able to handle a loud, noisy group in my classroom each morning, but I connect and conference with each one of the students throughout the week. I'm not saying this is better—just that it's different, and that's okay. And by advocating for myself, I’ve become an advocate for introverted students who might be struggling in the chaotic space of middle school.
I began using these strategies for my own survival, but I had no idea that I would go from surviving to thriving. Respecting my needs made me more energized and engaged with students. I became a better colleague and team player for the school.
I thought I was “getting away” with being an introvert. What I didn’t realize was that I’m a better teacher not in spite of being an introvert, but because of it.