It's tough to be an introvert in an extrovert world, especially in an extrovert's profession, like teaching. Through this blog, I'd like to share my own and others' reflections on being an introvert in the classroom. This isn't a place for misanthropes or grumps, though; I hope to thoughtfully discuss the challenges that introverts face in schools and celebrate the gifts that introverted teachers and students bring to the educational environment. If you can relate, please join me!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

"Don't smile until Christmas."

That's something older teachers love to tell younger teachers. I appreciated any advice on getting taken seriously when I started out teaching, as it's hard for seventeen-year-olds to view you as a real authority figure when you're twenty-two. Early on, one colleague even told me I needed to be "more of a bitch."

However, those comments were actually the exception rather than the rule. More often, new teachers are encouraged to fear that one wrong move of theirs will destroy a student's self-esteem for life. My master teacher (by the way, I hear they call them "cooperating teachers" now; ha, ha, if by "cooperating" you mean planning lessons with me ONE time and then getting paid to take notes on all my flaws while I teach your class for the next six weeks, then, yes, I had a cooperating teacher) told me up front: better to grade a student too high than too low. But maybe that was more a fear of parent complaints than of crushing children's hearts (if by children's hearts you mean seventeen-year-olds' hearts).

Then there was the time that I had the students doing some ridiculous, contrived game that I had come up with because talking about literature wasn't active enough learning, and they knew it was stupid and weren't participating. So, up there I stood, waiting. Finally, one boy felt sorry for me, and volunteered an answer. We moved on, but after class the master teacher berated me for not giving him more positive feedback; after all, he had saved my ass. First, student teaching is so humiliating that you get inured to that feeling pretty early on, and I think I would have lived had he not jumped in and given an answer out of pity. Second, when a bunch of students don't give answers, how did it become the teacher whose ass needs to be saved? Third, I didn't say anything negative; I probably just said 'ok,' because his answer was right. Just because I didn't lavish praise upon this kid, I was now a meanie.

So now, just being straightforward or neutral is mean. If you're not overly encouraging, or if you are quiet or subtle, you must be angry or derisive. Wesley Yang in "Paper Tigers" wrote about a similar phenomenon in a different context. He interviewed a young, Asian man who said that his friends asked him, "Dude, are you mad?" in clubs or other social situations. He felt he was merely being neutral, but because he wasn't acting like an over-the-top, smiley big-talker, he must be angry. That's how I think a lot of new teachers are made to feel. We know that we could be humiliated at any moment (anyone else been told to "suck and swallow" by a fifteen-year-old?), but if we're not as nurturing as kindergarten teachers on the first day of school, we're self-esteem crushers.

This pressure came up recently in a conversation with a colleague of mine. He said that he finds himself being excessively positive as a way to compensate for his introversion. Bottom line: If you're reserved, you'll be perceived as mean, so you have to act extra nice!

Ed school scared me so much that I once asked a counselor for his home phone number in case I read anything questionable while grading after hours because I was so paranoid about my status as a mandatory reporter. Our professors regaled us with stories of things we could do that could get us sued. At an orientation for one of my jobs in a coveted suburban district they told us that should any of us get ourselves dismissed, it might end up in the suburban newspaper. Gasp! Scandal!

In this type of social climate, could you blame twenty-two-year-old me for being worried when my master teacher wanted to show Dead Poets' Society? What if it sent out a bad message? What if it upset someone? Oh, silly me; I didn't realize that movies don't crush souls--only teachers do. So, after I voiced my concerns to her privately, she went on to say, after the movie finished, to the whole class, "So, you guys know that just because there's a suicide in this movie it doesn't mean we want you to go kill yourselves, right?" I can still hear the sarcasm dripping (the cliche works, so I'm leaving it in) in her voice.

You know, if a movie won't make someone commit suicide, I doubt that a D will either.

Herein is the paradox of being a young teacher: people view you in two extreme ways. You're treated as if you have the power to destroy lives or as if you're a nobody. Both feel pretty bad. Maybe that's the reason new teachers don't smile until Christmas.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mindy Kaling's book

Recently finished Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me, and got a lot of laughs. I particularly loved the section heading entitled, "I Forget Nothing: A Sensitive Child Looks Back." She describes keeping a list of her favorite foods with her at all times in case someone should ask. I love a defense against awkward small talk. And oh, how many of us shy types have mentally bullet-pointed an awkward conversation, or worse, not mentally but literally written out a list of things to say?

A lot of people think Facebook is a shallow soul-killer, but I love what it's done for small talk, which introverts tend to dread. I can get the information of small talk but without the face-to-face awkwardness and immediate need to respond. I can peek into others' lives without having to keep a conversation going. Like.

Good point by good friend A.J.

"I know you know this, but not all extroverts are 'content-free,' as you put it. We can be thoughtful and sincere and sensitive..."