As an introvert who teaches performing arts classes, I hear a lot of comments like:
“But you’re so quiet!”
“What’s it like teaching all day when you’re… you know?”
“How do you do that?”
I’ve even had someone say, “No offense, but I really can’t see you teaching. Do the kids just run around and walk all over you?”
Do they run? Sometimes. Am I the most strict teacher alive? Definitely not. But I can promise that I don’t stand awkwardly in the front of the room and stutter at my students. I teach. In my own creative, sometimes ridiculous way, I teach. Being an introvert doesn’t hinder me at all.
When people wrongfully assume that my quietness in a social environment translates into how I conduct myself in my profession, I’m reminded of the extroverted teachers who are surprised when introverted students blow a presentation out of the water — or play a lead in the school play. (“So-and-so did such a good job in your play! I didn’t know someone so quiet could do something like that!”)
After living as an introverted student for eighteen years — and an introverted teacher for three — it’s become clear to me what makes all the difference in any situation, whether it’s church, school, staff meetings, workshops. etc. And that factor is this: If something is meaningful to me, I will not hesitate to participate.
But, if I’m meant to participate for participation’s sake, or socialize for socialization’s sake, or just do anything that’s out of my comfort zone, without a good enough reason to do it… Well, I’m a professional, so I’ll do my best, but can’t promise it won’t be awkward (it will be).
Because I’ve only been teaching for three years, it would be ridiculous to try to share all the approaches I take to ensure that my introverted students are getting the experience they both need and deserve. Instead, I will harken back to my own education and provide a list of the kinds of teachers I both loathed and loved as an introvert. Can you relate?
Teachers I Loved and Hated as an Introvert
LOATHED: The “Everyone Is Contributing to Prove You Did the Reading” Teacher
Whenever a classroom discussion included the phrase “down the line” or “around the room,” my mind would jump into overdrive. I’d have three tabs open in my head: The first attempted to identify a meaningful thought about the reading that would be worth sharing; the second would come up with another thought — just in case my first choice was taken by someone else before the conversation got to me; the third would be me trying to decide if I’d be better off just pretending I didn’t do the reading at all.
What I can guarantee is that I very rarely learned anything from those classroom discussions — I was too busy mentally rehearsing what I was going to say to listen to anybody else.
LOVED: The Natural Group Conversation Facilitator
It’s not that I always hated group discussions. If a teacher knew how to keep one going naturally, they were actually quite enjoyable. For this to happen, of course, I needed to know for certain that no one would be called on spontaneously to contribute. As an introvert, I hated being called on spontaneously because I wanted to be able to decide for myself when something was worth sharing. When I shared something in class voluntarily, my comments were more sincere and, in my opinion, beneficial to the discussion. Being put on the spot demanded immediate input, whether meaningful to me or not.
If I knew I wouldn’t be randomly called on, I could relax enough to follow the discussion — and, you know, actually learn. I’d even raise my hand and participate occasionally, if I thought of something that needed to be said. I really admired teachers who navigated group discussions skillfully, because it’s a difficult task to manage.
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LOATHED: The Group Project Match-Maker
There were so many times, especially in middle school, when a teacher would proudly reveal our groups for a project, smiling like they’d just solved my entire social life with their match-making super powers. Often, these teachers would stick me in with three very bubbly, type-A students. That usually didn’t work for me because, while I was a great student and took pride in my work, I felt like a “project” myself when it came to socializing. Inevitably, the social butterflies would take over, and I would assist them with their vision. The work we accomplished was usually out of my creative control, and therefore wasn’t meaningful to me.
LOVED: The Flexible Project Teacher
Ah, options. Choose your group, opt to work alone, etc. These teachers were the real superheroes. To be fair, though, the teacher could only pull this off if they were very clear about their expectations. When teachers tried extending that freedom but didn’t hold us accountable to stick to our decisions, the ensuing chaos made me wish for the match-making alternative.
When allowed to choose my own group, I was able to find what would work best for each assignment. Sometimes, I actually wanted to join the Type-A socialites. Sometimes, I’d join a group of kids who didn’t usually take projects seriously. In those situations, I’d become the leader. (That never happened in the match-makers’ classrooms.) Despite being a quiet student, I almost never opted to work alone, because I actually did feel a sense of fulfillment when it was a group effort. I appreciated the choice, though.
LOATHED: The “Most of Your Grade Is Busy Work” Teacher
As an introvert, I spend a lot of time inside my own head. In fact, I’ve created a very rich inner world. If my exterior environment isn’t cutting it in terms of keeping my attention, 10 out of 10 times I’ll retreat to that inner world. So, when a teacher structured their class in such a way that the majority of our grades were earned by following instructions that required little-to-no brain power, I went through the motions — and probably also daydreamed the entire time.
To give some examples, these teachers would often have the same “note-taking” assignments for every chapter. “Write down the vocabulary words and their definitions. Write down five bullet points for each lesson.” Who needs more than 10 percent of their focus to accomplish those tasks?
A worse nightmare was a teacher who had requirements as superfluous as “Vocab words will be written in blue ink only, and chapter titles highlighted in yellow. Your bullet points must be bullet points — no dashes, stars, or hearts.” Can you imagine having points deducted for daring to take notes your own way? It happens more often than you think.
LOVED: The “Everything We Do Matters” Teacher
“Everything we do in class directly and efficiently contributes to your knowledge of the subject; everything we do in class is for a grade; and your grade will fairly and predictably reflect both your effort and achievements.” That’s surprisingly hard to accomplish, but the teachers who did — usually the very experienced, all-business types — didn’t give me any chance to daydream in their classes. It was go-go-go from bell to bell, and I appreciated it.
LOATHED: The “You’re So Quiet” Teacher
At every parent-teacher conference, without exception, someone would smile at my mother and say, “Your daughter is absolutely perfect! She just sits quietly and does her work. Can we clone her? [Forced laughter.]”
The teachers who dwelled on the fact that I was quiet, whether because they wanted to force me to participate more or because they simply appreciated it, didn’t exactly make me feel the most comfortable. It added just enough extra pressure to keep me from opening up, especially when my quiet nature was discussed openly in class as if it were my number one defining quality. If raising my hand meant hearing the teacher express surprise or excitement, my hand would stay down all class long.
For example, once a teacher performed what felt like a 5-minute monologue in front of the whole class revealing that the person who’d managed a perfect score on the test — me — was “the last person anyone would guess — and if she could sink further into her seat, she would.” I learned to go through the motions in his class, but never fully opened up, because he seemed to find my shyness entertaining.
LOVED: The Teacher Who Figures Out Individual Strengths and Validates Them
My favorite teachers, from elementary through college, were those who picked up on my interests, talents, and passions gradually — not through icebreakers or invasive conversations. These teachers would remember little things about my assignments and bring them up casually after class. It usually wouldn’t take them long to get a decent idea of what mattered most to me and what made me unique. When teachers focused on those things, and seemed to either not notice or not care how quiet I was, I naturally opened up. I mean, I still wasn’t the child to raise my hand every chance I could find, but it was easier to find meaning in the classwork if I felt valued in the classroom.
These teachers got things out of me that the other teachers dropped their jaws over. They manufactured environments that allowed me to experience and succeed at student leadership, public speaking, and performing — all the things I originally thought only extroverts could do well.
If by any chance, you’re an educator like me, I recommend you take some notes from the teachers I loved growing up. Feel free to take those notes any way you wish. Bullet points, stars, hearts — heck, use a bright orange pen if you feel like it. No points will be deducted from your grade.