A couple of years ago, I was at a Thanksgiving gathering with my family at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Cincinnati. My family was doing our normal deal – talking, eating desserts, watching football, and looking through Black Friday ads in the newspaper (my favorite part). At one point, I got up to get a cup of coffee and stopped to chat with my Uncle Jerry. He’s a quiet, always smiling man, who loves to golf and loves his grandkids. He is soft-spoken, but loves any opportunity to crack a joke or laugh.
“How’s school going?” he asked, and I knew he genuinely meant it. He wanted to really know, not just the general “It’s fine” that I say to a lot of people.
“Well,” I said. “It’s mostly going well, but it is exhausting getting up in front of 125 kids everyday and talking to them about the same thing five times a day. My group is a little wild this year, too.”
He nodded thoughtfully, then said, “I could never do that. It’s like you’re giving a performance every class. That’s hard.” And then he smiled and laughed, but it really dawned on me in that conversation: Teaching is a performance.
And for someone who strongly identifies as an introvert, that does make it hard. Performing is not something that introverts typically choose to do. We tend to be more reserved, more deliberate with our words than someone who identifies as outgoing or as an extrovert. We tend to hang out in the wings, quietly supporting the people in the spotlight.
I think about this idea of performance – usually around 8:10 a.m. when my students are about to walk in the door to my classroom and change the dynamic of this little space. Time to drop everything else and put on a face for the kids. I’m not always successful, but I feel like I often have to brace myself for their arrival. I go from the quiet and focused environment of my before-school routine in which I get to work on my to-do list and listen to NPR while I drink my coffee in peace, to hallways full of teenagers excited to see their friends. I like the early morning moments because they do help me prepare for the day ahead and give me the chance to “recharge” before the students arrive. I brace myself for the noise they bring – the laughter, the drama, and even the polite “good mornings” because I thrive in spaces of quiet.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t love and care for these same students who bring a cacophony to my mellow life each morning. You can’t teach middle school without loving these weird and wonderful kids, but sometimes their idea of an acceptable noise level far exceeds mine. I have to let myself be okay with a little “organized chaos,” a term my high school soccer coach used to use. I am not a loud person either, so sometimes wrangling in the excited shouts of 8th graders is challenging. It’s a skill that I’m still developing.
To help with that development of my teaching performance, I decided to take an online class about staying present and using mindfulness in the classroom. This class focused on how to teach mindfulness techniques to students, but also how to be a mindful teacher. As an introvert, mindfulness speaks to me because it promotes the idea of taking time to pause, breathe, and reflect before reacting to a situation. I am going to take some of these techniques to heart as a way to prepare myself for each day.
Most days, being an introvert is a challenging part of my decision to become a teacher. But I like to think that my need to recharge and have moments of quiet helps me to see some of those introverted students who may sometimes be passed over. Introverts tend to be more reflective by nature, and I think that will only help me to be a better teacher. When a student is quiet, I feel like I can connect with him or her. That’s one reason why as an introverted teacher, I love one on one conferences with students. It gives me a chance to lower the stakes for students who may not want to talk in front of the whole class, and who may be more comfortable talking with just me about their thoughts on a book or their writing. When I think about this type of introverted student, two girls from last year come to mind – a pair of ladies in my chatty 7th period class, right after lunch. They were often quiet in class, and hardly ever spoke out when we had whole-class discussions. But they listened. I knew they paid attention, and I also knew that they were thoughtful and brought up great ideas, especially in their writing. I would have such rich discussions with one or both of them when I could speak to them either on their own or in a small group. They knew that I cared about their thoughts and their work, even though I didn’t force them to talk to the whole class.
I see this type of student every day – reserved, bothered at times by the noise of their classmates – so I am more open to students opting to listen to music when it’s time to work. I have grown accustomed to the steady hum of the workshop model in my classroom, with noise from conferences, student collaboration, and the quick movement of pencils across notebooks. Quite a few students, especially introverted ones, often need a way to “check out” from these productivity noises, and they choose to use their headphones while working. I always give the caveat that when I come over to confer, they need to take them out, but most kids are thankful that I give them a chance to use music as a way to isolate themselves. I am continuously looking for ways to accommodate all of my students and create the best learning environment for each one of them.
Not every student is comfortable speaking up in front of their peers, and I can respect that. Just like we make accommodations for other student needs, I think it can really fluster those introverted students to be put on the spot in class. I was that kid once. As a Language Arts teacher, I value public speaking, but I also provide structured opportunities for students to build those skills. They will find their way to speak up for what they need, and for what is important to them.
I did, but it wasn’t always an easy journey. I am slowly finding my voice in wild world of middle school.