Introvert teachers in an extrovert world…

Empty vessels make the loudest sound – Plato.

I think I am in the wrong job!

I have wanted to be a teacher since I was 11 years old and before that I wanted to be an ice-cream lady and drive around in my ice-cream van (actually, I still think that’s a pretty good back-up plan). Standing up and talking to lots of people (adults) didn’t seem like a thing I would need to do as a teacher so the fact that I was often silent with shyness at school wasn’t going to stop me. At college and university my courses required me to listen (I have got better at this with age) and take notes and absorb clever things – they did not require me to say my opinions out loud, battle to be heard in a room full of people and they thankfully didn’t require me to stand up in front of crowds and ‘perform’ – so I didn’t. I was very quiet. I had no problem spending time on my own. I liked peace and quiet. And I am the same now.

Yet – I love to teach. I love everything about it. I recall my training as if it was yesterday (it wasn’t – it was 21 years ago…) and the absolute certainty I felt about wanting to teach from the moment I was let loose on ‘small group work’ in my mentor’s Year 10 class. From that point on I have worked to fight what comes naturally to me and challenge myself to say yes to speaking in assembly…yes to leading parent forums…yes…yes…yes to all the big brave performing that is so often required of teachers. And what’s so strange is that people in the ‘outside world’ don’t know that there is a cavernous difference between teaching in your classroom to an audience of 30 students versus speaking in your school hall to an audience of 100 of your colleagues! It’s utterly terrifying! Why is this?

I have recently read ‘A Quiet Education’ by Jamie Thom – an insightful and completely brilliant book that seeks to shine light on the introverts amongst us. I was interested to learn a new word (always!): Maskenfreiheit which is the German word for the idea that courage comes when you wear a mask and it makes real sense to me. The mask that introvert teachers wear to enable them to perform all day long is invisible – you would never know (hopefully) that trembling is happening when a teacher stands up on inset day and speaks for an hour. But the exhaustion that that naturally introverted teacher feels in the after-math of relief and sheer elation that the experience is over…for now, is both torturous and rewarding. Is it the adrenaline – the ambition – the professional pride that forces introvert teachers to abandon their natural state and put themselves firmly in the lime-light – I would say it’s all of those things (and a stubborn steak a mile deep!) but the price we pay is high. I recently heard a speaker describe teachers as the original ‘lone workers’. Funny when the perception is that we spend all day surrounded by hundreds of teenagers and many colleagues – but actually we are a lonesome bunch. It is possible to spend an entire school day in your own classroom not exchanging a word with another adult and then spend a couple of hours in your room after school’s finished alone doing your teacher-things and then home to mark books which is another solitary activity…

Jamie Thom is honest in his reflection that introverts may be challenging company – especially introvert teachers who come home exhausted from wearing their teacher-mask all day and want nothing more than to just be silent…and sit…and not say things…bliss!

Ours is an extrovert world – we revere the qualities of extroverts and measure success by its demonstration. We are able to communicate with people 24-7 and there is an embedded sense that if you are not doing that, you are somehow missing out: go home – go ‘on’ Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp groups – when does the mask come off for the introverts who just want to stop..? What part of the day is reserved for them to just be…

But how many teacher-introverts are we talking – maybe it’s just me who battles a natural quiet state when I go to work? Not so. My colleagues leapt at the chance to try the Myer-Briggs Personality Type test (we can argue the quality/validity/reliability of this test later – there has to be a starting point!) and the results were surprising. Naming no names (I have promised I won’t write about them!) the majority of my colleagues are in the introvert category – surprised? The extroverts are far fewer in number and not always the people I would have pegged – so there is some amazing Maskenfreiheit going on!

‘A fool is known by his speech; and a wise man by silence’ Pythagoras

I feel relieved – I am in the right place but what will this change for me? Nothing. When I go to meetings and listen to people who just like to say things because they like people to look at them/listen to them I will continue not to feel pressure to speak inanely for the sake of sharing the attention. When I stand up to speak to my colleagues I will remember that I have thought hard about (and probably practised) what I am going to say and believe it to be of some value. And when I go in to my classroom I will continue to be the cartoonish version of myself that seeks to perform to engage my students and show them that having a voice is very important…even if that voice goes away after a long day to rest for the next.

‘The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear’ Rumi

Published by Natalie Reed

Assistant Headteacher - Teaching & Learning

3 thoughts on “Introvert teachers in an extrovert world…

  1. I think this is such a powerful piece – we can often mistake shyness for rudeness and sometimes misinterpret loudness for confidence – but actually both could be compensating or masking their true feelings. A very interesting read. Thank you.

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  2. Perhaps we all have extrovert and introvert sides. I would describe myself as introvert, an only child, happy with my own company and preferring very small gatherings to large parties. In my professional life I am extrovert enjoying the adrenalin of public speaking or the buzz of a lesson going well. I don’t think I see it as Maskenfreude , rather 2 sides of my personality that makes up one person, but this article has certainly made me think about that!

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  3. Insightful and useful as ever, Natalie- thank you! It does feel great to know somebody understands and that although lonely, we are not alone 🙂

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