What It’s Like Being an INFJ Teacher

IntrovertDear.com INFJ teacher

“I’m going to mentor you,” my colleague, Leanne, declared one November morning in 2001.

She had already recommended me, based on my performance in the graduate school course she’d taught the previous summer, for a tutoring position in the university’s academic services center. I liked tutoring, and I was grateful the position had enabled me to leave a dead-end secretarial job.

But when Leanne added to her declaration, “You’d be a good professor,” I barely managed to avoid expressing my immediate reaction: Ha! No way. Buoyed as I was by her compliment, I disagreed with her appraisal.

I’m too much of an introvert to teach. I’d raised that same objection every time a career assessment survey listed “English teacher” as its top recommendation. In keeping with my INFJ personality, I’d recognized myself as a Textbook Introvert long before I knew the words “textbook” or “introvert.” I assumed teaching was off-limits for “people like me.”

(What’s your personality type? Take a free personality test.)

But Leanne set me straight. “Many of the best teachers are introverts,” she explained. “Students learn by participating actively, not listening passively, so people who like to talk as the center of attention aren’t necessarily good teachers. Introverts excel at the quiet, thoughtful process of planning lessons, which means they put students at the center of classroom learning. I’m an introvert, too. As much as I enjoy being in the classroom, I’m more comfortable working alone in my office.”

It had never dawned on me that Leanne might be an introvert. In addition to witty and whip-smart, she struck me as gregarious and outgoing, someone who never hesitated to take charge. She spoke faster than anyone I knew, and even then, her mouth lagged behind thoughts that branched like a poplar — something I associated with an extrovert’s think-out-loud processing.

She laid my doubts to rest with a final comment.

“People don’t become academics because they like to socialize. They become academics because they like to read, study, and write — introverts’ preferred activities.”

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The Gifts and Challenges of the INFJ Teacher

I finished my graduate degree, and, with Leanne’s mentoring, qualified for a university Writing Center Director position. Then I began teaching — a career that feels like a perfect fit.

I have come to appreciate my INFJ gifts, even as I remain conscious of the challenges it can present:

1. Idealism

INFJs tend to shoot for the moon and feel dissatisfied by landing among the stars. Among teachers, shooting for the moon means ensuring every student masters course content. When planning a course, I envision what that ideal would look like, then work backward to develop assignments. Course evaluations indicate that my approach sets challenging expectations, provides clear instruction, and results in measurable growth for most students.

Idealism can lead me to perceive star landings like most students as shortfalls rather than successes, however. I battle the burnout that haunts INFJs who “help others no matter the cost to ourselves.”

2. Adaptation

As Catherine Chea notes, INFJs seek “to adapt to the world and understand it.” Teaching requires adaptation. What happens in the classroom sometimes diverges from my plan, and I must react quickly.

If an activity doesn’t go well, my desire to understand what happened and why means I rarely encounter that same problem twice. I have to be careful, though, that adaptability doesn’t push me to bail on a plan before giving it enough time to work.

3. Patience with processing

Graded discussions were the bane of my student experience. By the time my brain worked out how to express an idea, conversation had shifted to new topics. I envied my extroverted peers’ effortless contributions. Now, I appreciate them. Extroverts break the ice on day one, when everyone (including me) feels shy, and they lead discussions in interesting directions.

I sympathize with my introverted students, so I alternate small-group activities with Socratic lecture. I provide discussion questions in advance and allow time for reviewing notes before opening discussions. Sometimes I begin class by having students freewrite in response to a prompt. These methods give introverts time to think and extroverts time to refine their ideas before expressing them.

Do you ever struggle to know what to say?

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4. Sensitivity

INFJs take criticism to heart. As a new teacher, I thought all students were as sensitive as I was, so I led with compliments, peppered my feedback with qualifiers, and offered suggestions instead of constructive criticism. Some students took those efforts to mean that their writing left no room for improvement.

Fortunately, I adapted. I still start by acknowledging an essay’s strengths, but then I state clearly where it needs work.

5. Observation

An INFJ’s attention to detail helps me notice everything that happens during class. I catch surreptitious glances at hidden cell phones and perceive personality clashes before they erupt. I discern which students like being called on and which prefer to talk through their ideas with a partner. These observations are particularly useful at a community college, where students face adversities in the form of socioeconomic status, family responsibilities, transportation, and inadequate K-12 preparation.

6. Prediction

Paired with strong observational skills, my N and J help me predict “‘what will be’ apart from external data.” That means I identify students at risk of faltering, even if they start the semester gung-ho. I can infer whether a student’s challenges are cognitive, linguistic, habitual (e.g., organization, time management, etc.), or situational (e.g., job, family, etc.), which makes it easier to offer support. My efforts don’t result in every student passing a course, but they increase the likelihood.

Still, I have to guard against overconfidence. The more experience sharpens my ability to anticipate a problem, the more dismay I feel when one escapes my notice.

Paired with INFJ perfectionism, predictive ability can lead me to project on students my definition of success. I sought a 4.0 GPA, so I’m perplexed when students capable of earning As are satisfied with Cs, and I can become disillusioned. It helps to remember that I meet students early in their college career, when they’re figuring out who they want to be. Not everyone wants or needs a college degree. Former students I run into exhibit tremendous growth, whether or not they completed college; I take comfort in that.

I’m lucky to have benefitted from a fellow introvert’s insights. My hope is that all introverts will follow Leanne’s example. Meaning, if we introverts recognize our gifts, the rest of the world will, too. 

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