Introverted teachers

INTJ … What’s wrong with being an introvert?

Nothing, of course.

Nothing, that is, unless you buy into the dominant American value: extraversion good, introversion bad. I wasn’t even conscious that that was an American value until I had already been teaching for a dozen years, when the mother of one of my students complained that her daughter spent too much time reading. “How is that possible?” came into my head, though I didn’t say it aloud. Surely reading is a good thing. Surely any parent wants their kids to read. But it’s not social, not collaborative, so apparently it’s not really a good thing,

We teachers all preach the idea that collaboration is useful, even essential. I tell students that they need to learn to work in groups, to cooperate. When they’re working on a group project, collaboration is in fact essential, so I push it. But when they’re merely working on problems, I only encourage it, without pushing; I will silently allow those who are more comfortable with working alone to do so. That’s partly because I remember my own school experiences, where I always preferred to work alone. It’s partly because all teachers know that we have to pick our battles, and that’s one that I choose not to fight.

Despite all that, I am completely convinced that the model used by Weston’s math department — where teachers of the same course work closely together in collaborative teams — is beneficial both to us and to our students. Furthermore, I actually enjoy it! Yes, it can take more time, but the benefits outweigh the costs. So how do I resolve this apparent contradiction?

Well, a book and an article come to mind. The book is Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, by Susan Cain. Regardless of your own personality, you should read this powerful book. It will give you insights into the other side of the E/I dimension, wherever you yourself fit in. (Full disclosure: I am an extreme N and T, a moderate J, and barely an I.) Cain will help you understand not only an aspect of other personalities but also an aspect of how other people might view you. She’s far from perfect: writing from the viewpoint of a lawyer, not a scientist, will inevitably give readers a lawyer’s take on the issues, not a scientist’s. But it’s informative and interesting.

Now for the article, which is specifically about teachers: “Why introverted teachers are burning out,” by Michael Godsey. We already understand that most school cultures are not well adapted to introverted students, but what about introverted teachers? Here’s the issue, as framed by Godsey:

The most common use of the term is to differentiate between introverts (who are energized by quiet space, introspection, and deep relationships and are exhausted by excessive social interactions) and extroverts (who are energized by social interaction and external stimulation and tend to be bored or restless by themselves) as a way of explaining different personal reactions to similar contexts.

It’s in this sense of the word that some teachers are citing their introversion as a reason why today’s increasingly social learning environments are exhausting them—sometimes to the point of retirement.

After 11 years of teaching English at a public high school, Ken Lovgren left the profession, mostly because he was drained by the insistent emphasis on collaboration and group work. Engaging in a classroom that was “so demanding in terms of social interaction” made it difficult for him to find quiet space to decompress and reflect. “The endless barrage of ‘professional learning community’ meetings left me little energy for meaningful interaction with my kids,” he told me. “I suspect a lot of teachers feel as I do.”

Ah yes, “professional learning community” — a great idea … with severe limitations. Godsey’s comments ring true to me. Although I don’t particularly mind meetings, and I love Back-to-School Night, I do find professional development exhausting. And yet I was initially skeptical of Godsey’s claim that “the structure of a teacher’s personality predicted burnout more strongly than other types of factors.” So I checked his well-researched primary and secondary sources, and found them convincing. In any case, read the article, and think about your own teachers (if you’re a student or used to be one), or your colleagues and yourself (if you’re a teacher).


Categories: Books, Teaching & Learning