As a highly sensitive introverted teacher, I knew I had to find different ways to better balance my introvert needs with my work ones.
How can I be an introvert — and a highly sensitive person — and still work around people all day as a teacher? This is a question I’ve asked myself lately, as I’ve become aware of what teaching costs me, emotionally speaking. After all, we introverts need plenty of alone time to recharge and just be one with our thoughts. So how is this possible with kids, and commotion, around?
For the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I was able to work from home. I was able to have a wonderfully quiet work space — one that met my needs as an introvert.
But, this past summer, I had to return to teaching in person. The thought terrified me: Would I cry in the bathroom because I was exhausted? Would the depressed, desperate feeling that came with being burned out come back? Would I crash every afternoon and not want to talk to my friends and family?
To try to prevent these situations from happening, I knew I had to find different ways to better balance my introvert needs with my work ones. Here’s how to excel as a teacher — even as a highly sensitive introvert. And if you’re not a teacher, yet work in a people-centric job, this advice can apply to you, too.
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6 Ways to Excel as a Highly Sensitive Introverted Teacher
1. Know the best strategies to deal with being affected by students’ energy, stories, and feelings.
People we meet at work affect us. As a teacher, we’re in close contact with so many people every day — fellow teachers and staff members, as well as the students. Some students have personal hardships and are worried and stressed. You often get to know alot about their lives, both the good and the bad, and their feelings affect us.
As highly sensitive introverts, we’re naturally empathetic and care deeply, so we can find it hard to know how to deal with “strong” emotions we get from others at work.
Because of this, I needed to have good strategies in place (other than drinking wine) to feel better after work. I found that tips from highly sensitive experts, like ones in Judith Orloff’s book, The Empath’s Survival Guide — Life Strategies for Sensitive People, helped. One thing I tried was following a script in her book where I visualized that I had an imaginary pink protective shield around my whole body. I also practiced saying in my head, “Return to sender” if I felt that the words and energy of someone were not good for me. This helped me calm myself down when talking to a student who was anxious, frustrated, or displayed insensitive behavior, for instance.
Another thing that helped was talking to someone — not just anyone, but someone who would “get” it. This past year, I’d often speak to my life coach, a friend who’s a good listener and mental health professional. Talking to the right person is critical, as some don’t understand what the problem is unless they’re highly sensitive, or an introvert, themselves. The last thing you want to do is talk to somebody who reinforces your fear that you’re “too sensitive” for your job.
2. Be creative in finding spaces for alone time right after teaching (or even during).
As you know, we introverts don’t do well without alone time after being around many people. If we don’t get this time to ourselves, we feel stressed and drained. So, as a highly sensitive, and introverted, teacher, finding time and space to relax is important.
While working at a school, though, you have to get creative to find spaces to be alone, since they’re not known for being small, quiet institutions. So this past summer, I focused on the things I could control instead of focusing on the noisy office, packed hallways, and lack of quiet rooms and cozy spaces. (Unfortunately, official “introvert zen zones” have not caught on yet!)
One thing I’d make sure to do was to leave the classroom right when the lesson was over. Beforehand, I’d ask the students to email me if they needed to talk. This way, instead of being caught off-guard by spontaneous conversations like I used to be, I was able to head for the most quiet place I could find. This usually meant another classroom, a bench on campus, or a quiet cafe nearby — anywhere where I was out of sight so that no one could get ahold of me for a while.
If I’d had a particularly socially challenging day, I’d see if I could find a space to listen to a quick meditation or relaxing music on my noice-cancelling earphones, or even leave early to not have to travel at the busiest time (which meant more commuters around, of course).
3. Make meetings and your lunch break a time to recharge.
Meetings and lunchtime can be a great place to connect with colleagues, laugh, and feel in community. It’s the highlight of the day for many, but as an introverted teacher, I couldn’t have disagreed more. Being social in the middle of the workday? When I was already being super social (more than I’d like)? No thank you.
One strategy I was mindful of was using meetings as a time to recharge, too. If I had to go to one scheduled right after class, I’d sit in the back, preferably by a window, or next to a quiet and calm colleague. I’d bring a pen and paper to doodle and take notes, something that always calms me. Even though I wasn’t alone, per se, I’d create a space around me that felt like a recharging station, of sorts.
Also, I allowed myself to feel okay about eating lunch alone. Bringing my own lunch let me find a quiet place to go eat it, without having to go to the staff lunch room or a cafe. Eating lunch alone didn’t mean I was lonely or weird (or that I didn’t like my colleagues and would never have lunch with them). But I knew I’d feel all used up later if I didn’t take that break time for myself. Accepting this fact helped.
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4. Create a ritual for decompression time to recharge right after you get home.
After more than 10 years of teaching, I still feel drained and emotionally all over the place after a day of teaching and being “on.” I think that is true for many introverted teachers. So I created a ritual to recharge as soon as I get home. Instead of scheduling to meet up with friends, cook, or plan errands as I used to, I’d allow myself an hour (or more) of time alone to feel like myself again after a socially busy day.
In the past, I would have judged myself for being “unproductive” after work, but not anymore. For me, my ritual involved putting away my work bag, putting on comfy clothes, making a cup of tea or coffee, lying on the couch under a blanket, and watching a couple of episodes of a slow-moving, softish, relational drama — even though the sun was still shining and the dishes had to be done. Just knowing that I could curl up in my quiet introvert sanctuary after teaching made it easier to be in the classroom and at meetings during the day.
If you’re someone with a busy home life, too — maybe you have a partner or kids — I realize finding this alone time (and space) can be harder to do. In other words, you need to get creative (even if that means hiding out in your walk-in closet or the bathroom for a while). Still, my experience is that the main idea is to have some kind of ritual, something small and simple you can do every day right after work to “wash off the day.”
5. Set boundaries for your social life at home, too.
“Not being social is a survival strategy, not a choice,” I found myself thinking this past June before teaching started back up. For me, and probably many other introverts with socially demanding jobs, even the smallest social event feels too daunting and like “too much” during the work week. Instead of feeling bad about it, I let myself be okay with being less social.
I also practiced creating some boundaries and saying “no” to others more, so that I could take care of my needs as a highly sensitive introvert. By saying “no” to social events, I was able to say “yes” to self-care.
But first, I had to have some discussions, and make some agreements, with people in my life. So I talked to my boyfriend and explained that I wanted to go to bed early during the week and have quiet evenings at home (or at an introvert-friendly place, like the park). Since we had a couple of events and concerts planned already, I suggested that we’d have dinner first — at home — so that the evening out didn’t become too long (or too people-y).
Remembering that friends and family are important, too — and, as introverts, we might want to step out of our social comfort zones once in a while — I wrote down a list of the friends I wanted to connect with. I also noted which activities I would be happy to do, those that would feel relaxing and energizing. Self-care came first, even though my younger self would have been appalled. (“You go to bed how early?”)
6. Learn from minimalism and find ways to simplify your home.
As a teacher, there is so much going on every day with students, lessons, colleagues, books, paperwork, emails, papers to correct, meetings, to-do lists… should I go on? Some of this, you can control, but a lot of it you can’t. It can all feel overwhelming and overstimulating.
One thing I can have more control over, though, is my home life. So I decided to learn from minimalism and simplify at home — all to make it easier to avoid overwhelm at work.
To keep things as simple as I could, I gave myself some instructions. The first was to have the same thing for lunch every day (a big green smoothie, all ingredients bought online for the whole week each week). Another was to wear the same clothes each day, regardless of how uninspired that might feel (so I bought a couple pairs of black pants, five identical dark blue T-shirts, and a pair of black shoes). I also picked out the clothes I wanted to use for cycling to and from work each day (all laid out the evening before). Simple, maybe even boring, but it made it so much easier to deal with the social part of teaching at work. A few less things to think (or worry) about!
I also wanted to create more calm and order at home. While my boyfriend was out, our office magically became a room with only the desk, a big computer screen, a green plant, and a small cupboard. I then organized all the books, papers, and pens in drawers, and gave myself and my boyfriend two drawers each. To me, this calm office space now feels like a way to balance out a busy, complex, and packed workday.
Taking Better Care of Myself as a Highly Sensitive Introvert
If you’re a highly sensitive introvert like I am, it’s important that we take care of ourselves as much as we can. So far, with the help of these self-care strategies, I haven’t cried after class or felt like “I can’t do this anymore!” — which are definitely great signs.
But, that said, I have been reminded that if I am to continue as a teacher, I need to continue to take care of myself much more than I used to. And that is my wish for you, too.
You might like:
- What It’s Really Like Being a Highly Sensitive Introvert
- At the Front of the Class — Teaching as an Introvert
- Why Ritual May Be an Introvert’s Most Important Form of Self-Care
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