On Introversion and Teaching

I had a conversation with one of my students the other day about my weekend and how I really enjoyed the time off away from them.  The conversation immediately took a turn as I found myself having to reassure my class that, yes, I do in fact love them dearly and I genuinely enjoy spending time with them, but I also need to have time away from them.  Being kids, they made the usual protests like suggesting that not wanting to be around someone all the time must mean you don’t really like them that much and that we’d totally have fun if we were to hang out outside of school.  I think I eventually allayed their fears by pointing out that I have an ethical obligation to separate my personal and professional lives (I don’t think many of my students really get the importance of this distinction, but they’re willing to accept it).

Of course, the other thing that I didn’t bring up, and which I usually don’t think to bring up when navigating these kinds of conversations with students, is that I’m just really introverted, and I’ve chosen a career that requires a lot of extroverted behavior over the course of a normal workday.  From the time my students come in the door, I’m engaging them in conversation, gauging their moods to try to predict the tenor of the day, reminding them about paperwork they need to take home or return and special events that they need to remember to bring money for if they want to participate.  Once class starts, I’m redirecting students from horseplaying or socializing so they can focus on the lesson, coming alongside students who don’t quite understand what they’re supposed to do and offering encouragement and extra explanation, and always, always, shooing children away from my work area.

I go for six hours straight, re-running my lesson plans four times over before lunch time (even this isn’t a break in the day, since we eat lunch in our classrooms, effectively having homeroom redux at noon) and once more after before sixth period arrives and I’m rewarded for my hard work with a planning period that’s abbreviated by the demands of bus duty at the end and that super difficult class transition at the beginning and the ever present possibility that a situation might arise from the ether and draw me in for support when I’m just trying to walk down the hall to use the bathroom (on one occasion I became entangled in three separate incidents in the span from my room to the break room, which is probably a hundred fifty feet away).  Sometimes my planning gets interrupted because students have serious issues they want to discuss, or they need to be removed from their regular class because of a conflict, and that’s the end of my respite.

Let’s also not forget that there’s time before and after the students are in the building when I have to be on; our teaching team has a standing appointment to gather and discuss potential issues on the hall each morning before the students arrive, and many days after school we get together to debrief about what’s gone down.  These are valuable parts of the day, but they’re also social, and sometimes I just don’t have the mental resources.

It’s no wonder I show up for work an hour early every day; being one of the first people in the building provides a solid half hour where I’m guaranteed to be left alone to do all the essential things of teaching like lesson planning and straightening up my room.

It feels at this point like I should reassure readers that I really do enjoy my job, my students, and my coworkers immensely, and then I wonder if that need to reassure is coming from a place of guilt over my being introverted, and if that’s the case, why I feel guilty for my personality in the first place.

The reason I bring all this up is because of this article from The Atlantic that I read the other day.  It discusses teacher stress with regard to the extrovert-to-introvert scale, and wonders at whether current trends in public education are turning schools into workplaces that are poor fits for people with introverted personalities.  I’ve never considered the connection before (I had always attributed feelings of exhaustion after a day at work to the fact that teaching involves a lot of emotional labor), but as soon as I saw the article in my news feed, I immediately felt like it would be relevant to me.  The observations I found (that teachers are typically afforded very little solitary time throughout their workdays, and teaching strategies that favor social engagement among students are more popular) weren’t necessarily revelatory, but the article’s suggestion that these features of the work environment might be creating unnecessary stress on introverted teachers was an interesting one, particularly when combined with accounts from introverts who had moved out of K-12 education to get away from these stressors.

I don’t have an interest in leaving high school education, mostly because I feel like I’m still working my way towards the kind of job that I really want.  I don’t teach in my preferred content area, and I’ve been doing special education for four years now when I’ve always wanted to be in general ed; I just figured there would always be things about the job that I’d find at least a little dissatisfying as long as I wasn’t doing the specific thing that I got into education to do in the first place.  The thought of changing careers isn’t one I’ve seriously considered since I started teaching, and it’s still not.  Even so, it is interesting to read about issues that other introverts have had with the profession, and wonder how they can be improved, or at least better managed.


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