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!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

"She's not talking directly TO YOU"

My mom had to explain this to me when I encountered my first bad teacher. This was in the fifth-grade. The woman was disappointed and angry all the time. She would get so upset by a not particularly rambunctious fifth-grade class that she would scold us from the front of the room, turning red and shaking. Her favorite adjective to describe how she felt about our assignments, math quizzes, behavior--just about anything--was "appalling." "I am appalled," she would say. She had a habit of berating the whole class at once, and I took it very personally. I think I missed the part of childhood where you learn to tune out rambling or irrational adults, and, being sensitive, I felt very bad when she would say these things.

My mom explained that often there are a few kids in the class who behave badly or don't do their work or don't follow instructions, but that the teacher gives admonishments to the whole group. That's just how school is. Presumably, and unspoken, of course, was the idea that teachers did this to save time or to warn others not to commit the same errors.

While I'm certainly guilty of doing this myself--although I try not to be insulting and I'm sure I've never used the word "appalling"--, it has led me to wonder, over the years, if this is really the only way.

I had a similar reaction in a department meeting recently. This particular colleague is known to go on long tirades, and the modus operandi for the rest of us has just been to ignore it and let it pass. But I had had enough one day. I argued back. Later, my colleagues were surprised that I cared so deeply about the issue and wouldn't just nod and let him go on. After all, I was supposed to assume that he was just venting; when he made broad generalizations about all the bad things instructors are doing, it was assumed that he meant "present company excepted" and why did I feel hurt? He's not talking directly to you. Well, if what he said didn't apply to the present company, why did I have to sit there and listen to it? As in the fifth grade, I wondered why I was listening to this hostility when it supposedly had nothing to do with me?

I'm sure students wonder the same things. When students switch from home schooling to mass schooling, they often marvel at the waste of time listening to things that do not apply to them. And why should they have to listen to these things? Our society, for convenience and cheapness, of course, makes it impossible for teachers to differentiate instruction and individualize things to meet students' needs the way we ought to, the way they, those students, deserve. We can't fix that, of course, so all we can do as teachers is try to remember that there are lots of different kinds of kids in the audience and try to tone down the frustration and, dare I say, anger, that we express when we exhort them all. It justifiably upsets the sensitive kids, and sometimes the kids who need it most are accustomed to tuning you out anyway.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"When nothing is certain, everything is possible" --Margaret Drabble

Like most meant-to-be inspirational quotes, this one, which graces the spine of last month's Real Simple magazine, makes me want to gesture with my index finger toward my throat and make barfing noises.

Though I am a creative person, an English major, I need some structure. Engineer's daughter, after all. How much structure do you need for creativity? I think there is a common misconception among humanities folk  that structure somehow kills creativity or somehow replaces it because you supposedly can't do both. I think of the tenure committee scheduling meetings where I brought three clipboards, one with each syllabus for each of my three preps so I would know exactly what topic or activity was planned on each day so that I could tell the evaluators if that was a good day to come and everyone would chuckle--sometimes even my department chair, as she would pull out her own meticulously pencil-marked calendar.

As a teacher of a lot of developmental English, I help my students learn to organize their notebooks and their assignments which clears the way for thinking. You can't analyze the quote when you can't find it and re-read it first and refresh your memory. Organization is not supposed to replace the thinking, as a colleague seemed to think in an informal meeting when he said in regard for such activities, "Aren't we just teaching them how to be good little citizens?" as if you couldn't possibly teach both procedural and mechanical skills along with thinking. In fact, for me, structure enables me to think. I think people who just don't do well with a lot of structure, like my colleague, like to think of philosophically grounded reasons not to take roll and do other mechanical things in the classroom.

For me, when nothing is certain, nothing is possible.

If I don't have at least a topic and specific readings assigned for every day of the semester, I feel lost. I get overwhelmed. There are too many possibilities, and I end up dreading class or just trying to stretch things and make it through. When I have some structure, I can be more creative precisely because I don't have limitless possibilities. OK, I know we're reading these particular pages, so I can be creative for this content and don't have to pull out or mentally sort through all at once all the cool things we could do with this book. To specify page numbers and essay due dates on your syllabus may seem pretty basic, but I know people, both effective and not-so effective teachers, who don't decide that ahead of time.

The stress of endless possibilities also makes me think of the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, by Mark Haddon. The Asperger's-diagnosed teen who narrates it describes why lying is difficult for him. The book is in my office so I'll paraphrase. The narrator says something like, "When I try to think of one thing that didn't happen, I start thinking of all the other things that didn't happen and there are so many that it makes me feel nervous and scared."

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Cell phones at dinner

I'm updating my English 1C course because every four years, the publishers revise my favorite essay anthology and throw a wrench into my painstakingly revised syllabus and assignment sequence that I've finally gotten just right.

One interesting essay in the new edition is called "Keep Your Thumbs Still When I'm Talking to You," by David Carr. It's pretty much the usual cliche about how people checking their cell phones at dinner at a restaurant is so rude and that cell phones and internet in general are making us inept at face-to-face communication. Even though I am a pretty traditional person, I disagree with this curmudgeonly critic.

I think that people's urge to check cell phones in social situations is less about rudeness or addiction to technology and more about Americans' discomfort with silence.

In a social situation in an extroverted society, you can't just sit there doing nothing and saying nothing. If you're quiet, you can at least be checking your cell phone.

How many times have you heard the word "pause" or "silence" preceded by the adjective "awkward"? I've heard it a lot. It's as if in conversation, silence can be of only the "awkward" kind. The extroverted ideal of constant talking doesn't work for everyone, and some people just can't always be thinking of something clever or witty to say. So we check our cell phones.

Maybe introverts should hail the cell phone revolution; finally, there has arrived a socially acceptable way among people of a certain age group, to have a moment where you don't have to talk.