Re-imagining School for Introverted Teachers

There are days when I am working that I don’t feel like I’m working. I sit down for three hours and plan out the anatomy of a course. I chip away at a new syllabus. I hop over to a Google Document and leave feedback on student work. I read up on some research, work on a book or plan out an article.

In these moments, I feel like I’m getting away with something — like I’m not actually doing work. I’ll have a moment of panic where I think, “Am I supposed to be at a meeting? Am I supposed to be teaching a class? Is this really okay?”

This is my life as a professor. I’m still adjusting to the amount of time I get to work alone. It’s a sharp contrast to being a middle school teacher. I loved that job but I came to realize that exhaustion was just a part of the job description. I learned to deal with massive blocks of time surrounded by a crowd, but at 3:40 each day, I had to decompress. Even with amazing kids doing amazing work, I was an introvert in an extroverted world.

Over the years, it became harder and harder to be an introverted teacher. Every professional development opportunity involved sitting in a massive group, doing ice breakers (I would rather let the ice melt slowly) and then tons of pair-share exercises. We shifted toward more time before and after school being out on duty. In the name of collaboration, we started planning lessons together and meeting in groups to form common assessments. Slowly, prep periods became group planning time.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the trends toward community collaboration. But what does this means for introverted teachers? Does the push toward group cohesion mean quieter, self-directed teachers lose their autonomy? Are we creating enough spaces of silence and solitude? Are allowing teachers to pursue their own learning away from the group? Or is that seen as divisive? With a push toward common assessments and common lesson planning, do our Professional Learning Communities actually allow teachers to work independently as professionals?

How can schools meet the needs of introverted teachers?

What would it look like for schools to accommodate introverted teachers? We often talk about meeting students where they are at but what about teachers? What would it look like for schools to modify their systems so that introverted teachers actually thrive? Here are a few ideas:

  • Provide professional development credit for personal learning. In other words, let teachers write books, conduct research, and publish blog posts for professional development credit. This would allow for introverts to do the kind of work that recharges them.
  • Empower your introverted teachers. Encourage teachers to find things classroom practices that benefit students while also allowing them to thrive. For example, teachers who are tired of being “on” all the time often thrive in doing shorter, more meaningful student conferencing.
  • Allow for individual processing time. If teachers are creating collaborative lessons, units, and assessments, make sure that there are moments of quiet built into the process. In some cases, allow teachers to opt in or opt out of collaborative projects. Or allow them to use asynchronous collaborative tools like a shared document.
  • Assume the best motives. Realize that introverted teachers aren’t “hiding something” when they get nervous about visitors in the classroom. It’s the same way they feel at a party or a meet and greet. Similarly, introverts aren’t being standoffish when they avoid the staff lounge at lunch. They simply need time to recharge. Being an introvert is a bit like being an iPhone. You’re packed with creative capacity but your battery life is woefully short.
  • Rethink leadership. In my experience, most of the leadership roles were hyper-relational. They required additional meeting times and extra phone calls. These can be exhausting for introverts. But what if we allowed introverts to be thought leaders on our campuses? What if we required fewer committee meetings and allowed introverts to lead through more one-on-one interactions?
  • Let them make stuff. What if we gave them the time, the space, or even the resources to create additional materials? Schools spend money on professional development, coaching, and student resources. They often pay groups of people to come in on the summer and do entire curriculum rewrites. But what if they created part-time positions where teachers could spend part of the day teaching and part of the day conducting research or creating materials (maybe videos, online courses, etc.) that allow the school to thrive?
  • Ask the Introverts. This is the simplest idea. Just ask them what they need in order to thrive. Chances are you’ll get great ideas from the introverts on your staff.

I realize that many of these ideas require leaders to change systems and structures. There are certain policies that can make this a challenge. However, I am convinced that educational leaders can redesign policies and structures so that all teachers – include the introverts – can thrive.

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