What I Loved (and Feared) About School as an Introvert

An introvert in a school classroom

As a kid, I was called “shy” and “awkward.” Here’s what worked for me — and didn’t work for me — in school.

It’s the early 1990s. I’m sitting in a classroom, probably wearing a scrunchie and a colorful vest, leggings, and jelly shoes. Everything’s fine… except a teacher has just called on me, and I’m nervous. I know the answer — I think. But I also have no idea what an introvert is, and I’m pretty sure nobody else in the room does, either. Kids like me are usually “shy,” “reserved,” or “awkward.”

Fast forward almost thirty years later, when the world is starting to understand what an introvert is and how we operate differently from extroverts. Google “introvert-friendly classroom” and look at the results — there is definitely a growing awareness of how introverts learn, thrive, or struggle in the classroom. (Hats off to teachers who, among many other challenges, work with students’ different personality types every day.)

Some School Experiences Were More Introvert-Friendly Than Others

Think back to your years in school, from grade school up through your final years of college. Some aspects of your experiences were probably more introvert-friendly than others. I spent 20-plus years of my life attending school. Now that I’m done, I can reflect on what worked for me as an introvert — and what didn’t — at various points in elementary, middle, and high school, as well as college and graduate school.

Disclaimer: While I have spent many years working in educational or education-related settings, I am not a pedagogy expert. So while I’m not qualified to analyze introverts’ learning styles and the teaching methods that are most beneficial, I can speak to my personal experience as an introvert who spent a heck of a lot of time in school and in educational settings in general.

(What are introverts like as children? Here are seven common characteristics that most introverted kids share.)

3 Things I Loved About School as an Introvert

1. The more creative an activity, the better

In elementary and middle school, I had fantastic teachers who recognized that I was a quiet, creative kid. The moments I thrived were during reading time, art class, writing, or journaling sessions, and even school play rehearsals. (Yes, really! Theater is a fun option for some introverts.) 

I also loved when my section of the school band practiced together; there were usually no more than seven or eight of us at any given time, and it was a relaxed, friendly atmosphere with people I felt comfortable being around. 

For all of these situations (except play rehearsal), I never had to be “on” while answering questions or participating in a group activity. And I got to channel my creativity, something introverts do very well.

2. Working in small groups? Yes, please!

Working in small groups gives introverts a chance to be heard and have a conversation, rather than compete for attention or try to raise a hand fast enough among a sea of students.

The example of the elementary school desk pod comes to mind. Yes, sitting in a group of four desks that faced each other was stressful sometimes: I felt like someone was always looking at me, and I occasionally had a neighbor who would not stop talking. But it also lent itself to getting to know certain classmates better. I still have nice memories of chatting with new and old friends at desk pods in second and fourth grade, having the fun, in-depth conversations that introverts love

My appreciation for small groups continued throughout high school. In fact, recognizing that I worked well with smaller groups was part of the reason I decided to attend a smaller high school. Ultimately, I felt that that environment would be the best fit for a “shyer” kid like me… and I was right. While I wrote my college essay about how I “came out of my shell” in high school, I think I actually became more comfortable with myself and began to scratch the surface of what my introversion meant

3. Being independent and autonomous

Introverts thrive on independence. We like being able to go at our own pace, set our own rules, and answer only to ourselves. And yes, okay, school has assignments, rules, and hierarchies of authority. 

Yet, surprisingly, high school was an introvert-friendly environment for me. It wouldn’t seem that way on the surface: High school is full of loud hallways, busy extracurricular activities, and lively events, which can all be stressful situations for introverts. But high school is also a time when students can start customizing their school experience more, from choosing electives they’re interested in to finding extracurricular activities that suit their personalities. Additionally, in high school, students are expected to do a lot more independent work, so that was compatible with my personality, too. And college was also introvert-friendly for that reason. 

But throughout my overall school experiences, there were a number of things that weren’t compatible with my introverted personality. Certain everyday things that might seem normal to an extrovert made me nervous. In retrospect, now that I understand my introversion better, I see that these things drained my energy.

Join the introvert revolution. Subscribe to our newsletter and you’ll get one email, every Friday, of our best articles. Subscribe here.

3 Things I Feared About School as an Introvert

1. Loud settings, like the school cafeteria

For a case study to illustrate a loud school setting that can make introverts uncomfortable, I have to go back no further in my memory than the good old middle school cafeteria, which was loud and exhausting. If I sat at a big table with a bunch of people, I often struggled to keep up with, or be a part of, the conversation. 

But if I sat with just a few friends, I was comfortable. During middle school, I was also fortunate to find a way around going to the cafeteria. Throughout those years, I had close-knit circles of friends who, a couple of times a week, either hung out in a school counselor’s office during lunches or escaped to the quiet science classroom. Having the ability to not be in the loud cafeteria and enjoy quiet conversations with small groups did wonders for me as an introvert (and ensured I had energy to get me through the rest of the school day!).

2. Not being able to recharge 

Speaking of loud settings and having energy for the rest of the day, going outside for recess during the school day is supposed to be a fun and refreshing way to recharge batteries, right?

…Right?

In grade school, recess often meant a lively group conversation where I was on the edges. A loud field or courtyard full of yelling kids where I couldn’t figure out how to relax? No thanks. Or (among other semi-blocked memories) the sixth grade kickball games where I, uncoordinated child that I was, feared getting yelled at by classmates if I tripped over the ball or didn’t know I had to run back to a base to tag up. 

My favorite recess times were the rare quiet chats with friends, but I’d probably most have liked to sit outside quietly with a book for 20-30 minutes, had I not felt like it was “uncool” or like I had to socialize. Some kids need to run around to burn off energy. But I — like many other introverts! — needed to recharge from being in class. Introverts need a balance between interactive and quiet time throughout the school day.

3. Being put on the spot 

There were also aspects of my school experience that didn’t change as I got older. It’s a late August day in the early 2010s. People kind of understand what an introvert is, but Susan Cain’s groundbreaking book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, still hasn’t come out yet. And I’m in a classroom on my first day of graduate school orientation. Mid-20s, no scrunchies or jelly shoes this time, but I feel like I’m a shy elementary school kid about to endure circle time back in 1992. 

Because we’ve just been told that we must talk in our seminars in order to be successful. Fair point, but also, yes, exactly as terrifying as it sounds. If I were writing out my school fears as a top-10 list, being put on the spot would be Fear #1, from kindergarten right up through my final graduate school class. Introverts need time to respond so we can process questions and formulate answers. (I only wish my professors had known this.)

As a result, I’d often spend time before each of my classes coming up with several pre-planned, thoughtful comments that I’d write in my notebook. It had worked well for me in my undergraduate classes, where I’d felt comfortable enough with the group (sometimes) to speak up without feeling awkward. But I also didn’t feel pressured to talk back then. In grad school, even my well-planned responses sometimes couldn’t prepare me for a spontaneous question or the pace of the conversation, making most of my classes a stressful experience.

Figuring Out Introvert Strengths Through Reflecting on School 

Looking back on what I loved about school (creativity, small groups, and independence) helps me identify my introverted strengths, like expressing myself through writing, connecting on a one-on-one level with others, and being confident doing things on my own. 

As for the fears? Well, those help me know my limits and understand my introversion better. I now spend time in louder settings in small doses. I pay attention to when I need to take a break from socializing to recharge. For example, if I’m at a busy social work event, I’ll prefer to take my lunch break alone rather than with a group. And if I’m put on the spot? Well, I’ve finally found confidence in using the perfectly acceptable response of, “I don’t know, but I can find out.”

In retrospect, I can appreciate who I was throughout my years in school, from the shy elementary school kid afraid of being called on but who loved reading to the grad student still afraid of being called on, but who still loved reading. While school may not always have been introvert-friendly, it was a time of self-discovery about my introverted nature, even if I may not have realized it at the time.

You might like:

We participate in the Amazon affiliate program.