At the Front of the Class — Teaching as an Introvert

A man teaches in a classroom

By having someone believe in my abilities to teach, regardless of being an introvert, I began to believe that I could navigate anything.

Before walking into the classroom on the morning of my first day teaching a college writing course, I stood against a railing behind the building and dry-heaved. I had done the same an hour before, standing over my bathroom toilet before leaving my apartment. Outside the building, I took some deep breaths and contained myself. I walked into that classroom and had each of the students introduce themselves before I introduced myself. I settled in. I got through it. I went over the syllabus and let them go early. And the second class that immediately followed was a little easier.

One of the greatest things that ever happened to me was teaching — and it all started when I was a Teaching Fellow during my first full year of graduate school. When asked, I was 22 years old and a part-time student in an English MA program. It was the end of the spring semester when the program director asked if I was interested in teaching; I’d begin in the fall. 

I sat in her office dumbfounded: I had an undergraduate degree in history, after all, and didn’t think I was worthy enough to teach. But, beyond worthiness, I was terrified. As an introvert, my default setting in a classroom environment — in any social environment, really — was to sit in the back and contribute only when I was sure I had something to say, and even that took courage.

I had the triple threat: I was shy, had anxiety because of my shyness, and was an introvert. It’s unclear exactly how many of us introverts are out there, but it’s anywhere from 16 to 50 percent. Carl Jung first made the distinction between us and them — introverts and extroverts — characterizing the ways each of us respond to the outside world. Most social situations made me nervous and self-conscious, especially when they were with people outside of my tight-knit circle of friends or coworkers who “get me” for me. But even when I was relatively comfortable in social situations, I walked away worn out — the “introvert hangover” is real.  

I had a close group of friends and preferred spending time with them over going to large parties. I chose staying home over going out most of the time. I liked to work alone (I chose writing, after all). Although I could small talk with the best of them, I avoided it if possible. Yet here I was, being asked to teach college writing courses… and I said yes.

Saying ‘Yes’ to Teaching — Even as an Introvert 

I wanted to teach — I just wasn’t sure if I could do it. I knew that if I wanted to make a living writing, then teaching needed to be a component of my income. I knew that I had to force myself to push against my default settings (like hiding in the back row). I knew that I had to force myself to be uncomfortable if I wanted to grow personally and professionally. I knew that if I could find a way to function as a teacher — despite my shyness, anxiety, and introversion — that doors of opportunity would open.

I wish I could say that I didn’t suffer from the nervousness I had on that first morning ever again, but I did. It lessened as the semester progressed. And each semester that I taught, I got more comfortable. It still surfaces from time to time, but the challenge now is simply recognizing that doing something that isn’t my hardwired tendency doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t do it. Rather, I needed to be prepared (and we introverts excel at this).

Using My Introvert Strengths in the Classroom

As an introvert, when teaching, I do my best to create a balance between activities geared toward introverts and activities geared toward extroverts. And I talk to students about learning styles and personality types. It is important to emphasize that both responses to life are equally valuable. Because they are. In this Forbes article, Robyn D. Shulman writes: “Although learning how to work together is an essential skill, it can’t justify forcing youth to work in ways that are detrimental to their learning style. Forcing students to work in ways they find overwhelming can inhibit personal growth, development, and can also lead to many missed opportunities and potential innovations.”

Growth is almost always uncomfortable, but is necessary — at least for me — to force myself to become uncomfortable. Nothing changes if I live in a stagnant state. Through the process of staring down my shyness and introversion, for example, I became more comfortable — excited even — by opportunities to collaborate. I began to trust people more and trust more people. My introversion, like my character, has evolved over time.

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Teaching, Especially as an Introvert, Is Exhausting

When I most recently taught a couple of years ago, I got comfortable within seconds of walking into the classroom (if I wasn’t comfortable from the onset). That took time, of course. It also took a lot of positive self-talk: You’ve done this before. It will go fine. Just breathe. Don’t overprepare — you know this material. 

After nine years of teaching, what still would happen, however, is that I would get drained emotionally from just a couple of classes. I put all the passion and energy I could muster into each class — lectures and discussions and small groups and one-on-one mentoring. Afterwards, I didn’t want to be around many people the rest of the day: I needed to recharge. I needed to be with myself. I needed to prepare for the next time I taught. So I started doing different things: running, meditating, eating better. I started taking better care of myself overall. 

Generally, I’d like to think I know my limits. I’d like to think that I know when I need to recharge. This is a constant search for balance, as with anything else. It’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. But I learn, I try, I grow. And because of it, I’m much more comfortable in my own skin. And for me, that’s what it’s all about. Doesn’t each of us just want to be comfortable and confident with who we are

Now, I Actually Miss Teaching

Having not taught for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I now find myself missing teaching. I miss discussing E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” examining persuasive essay structures, and the often deep and meaningful discussions that organically grow out of a group of people navigating the world of ideas. I even miss grading papers. 

I am so grateful to have said “yes” to that offer to teach a dozen years ago. By having someone believe in my abilities to navigate a classroom, regardless of being an introvert, I began to believe that I could navigate anything if I was willing to challenge myself and grow. In her recent article about living in the middle of nowhere as an introvert, Kyra Evans says it as well as anyone: “It doesn’t matter if your leap of faith ‘works out’ according to plan. In this life, what matters is what we learn. (And we introverts love to learn!)”

The reality is, as introverts, we still live in a world dominated by extroverts. As Shulman also said in her Forbes article, “Although we have some control over our private lifestyles, we have yet to see landmark changes in the workforce and within the education system that address the needs of an introvert to perform at his or her best ability.” And, as introverts, we have an opportunity to do something about that, especially when we become educators.

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Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, Brevity [Blog], The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, Switchback, and The Roanoke Review, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is pending publication. He is the founder and editor-in-chief of Green Briar Review. Read more of his work here.