It's generally believed that the teaching profession is better suited to extroverts. While hugely rewarding, it is exceptionally demanding, noisy, chaotic and educators are always under the microscope. But there are many introverted teachers across the country, who, as a recent article in The Atlantic concluded, are more vulnerable to burnout than their extroverted colleagues.
Jessica Honard agrees. A self-described introvert, Honard left the classroom after five years after she reluctantly concluded that the relentless daily pressure eclipsed what she loved about teaching high school English. She continued to work in education, including leading workshops for educators on how to differentiate for introverted students. After these sessions, participants would approach Honard and tell her that they were introverted teachers and were just as burned out as their students. "I soon realized that there was this community out there of introverted teachers who were overwhelmed," she recalls. Honard was already writing a book about working with introverted students but decided to include a section offering tips and strategies to help introverted teachers navigate the school day. The book is called "Introversion in the Classroom: How to Avoid Burnout and Encourage Success" and Honard spoke with NEA Today recently about her experiences and the challenges introverted teachers face.
In your first year in the classroom, were you prepared for the pressures of teaching? Were you consciously aware that you were an introvert?
Jessica Honard: No. At the time - I was very young - I didn't really know what introversion was, at least not until I read Susan Cain's book "Quiet" the year after I left teaching. So I didn't know why I got burned out so easily and overwhelmed so quickly. I did experience something similar in high school, and my solution then was to enroll in community college and distance myself from the social aspects of high school. So when I began to teach, I was kind of expecting it to be overwhelming because you do hear a lot about teacher burnout. It's the nature of the field. I do think that introverts and extroverts are both susceptible to burnout, but I think introverts are a little bit more so.
What were the conditions at your school that made it particularly hard for you?
JH: I loved teaching. I loved being in the classroom and I particularly enjoyed connecting with the students, but I felt I wasn’t given enough time to do more of that. For a short period of time, I was the only teacher in my subject and then they added another one, which alleviated the class size problem. But I still had around 190-210 students, which for me was a lot. For my students it was a lot too, because they were coming at me at all different ability levels and it was hard for me to reach them that way. Plus, the constant meetings and the expectations that the administration had - which weren't necessarily bad but they often took more time than I had to give - became too much. Eventually, when you have enough 13,14, 15 hour days, you have to pull back and ask yourself if this is the way you want to approach this field.
What kind of support system was in place at your school or were you more or less on your own?
JH: The administration did what they could to support the teachers. But it was a very large school and they were hampered by their own demands. I did have a few teachers who I could confide in. They weren't introverts necessarily, but they understood that when I needed to take five or ten minutes in the teachers lounge to recuperate, they would watch my class. During passing period, we were required to stay in the halls and have a presence. Sometimes a colleague would cover my post if I needed the quiet of the classroom for a few minutes. Also, I taught an advanced placement class and students would be at my door before school started, which was usually my time to focus and center myself, just get ready for the day. So those teachers I was able to confide in would hold them off for a few minutes.
You just mentioned the constant meetings and demands on your time outside of the actual classroom, which is a challenge you address in the book. You recommend that educators don't "overcommit." But isn't there a huge expectation for teachers - newer ones especially - to take part in everything at school, including all the social activities?
JH: Definitely, but some of it is probably self-imposed, especially with those new teachers. When I started teaching I wanted to put on a good appearance. I wanted to fit in because I was so young and needed the support from the people around me. So I put myself out there, which worked for a little while but then quickly became too much.
When committing to activities outside of the classroom, introverted teachers should be aware of their own limits. It's not that they should never commit, but they should try to do so in a way that feels right to them. For example, I ran the Creative Writing Club at my school. This allowed me to be a part of extracurriculars, but it was a very different experience than, say, chaperoning the football games. It was more suited to my individual needs.
As an introvert, however, I was taught to teach as an extrovert. It's not just the fact that I would have to do a Iot of group activities or that I would feel as though I couldn't give my students time to work individually. In doing that, I had to be "on" all the time and I had to present a kind of social persona that related to that teaching stye.
Educators want more time to collaborate with colleagues. If those opportunities become yet another expectation, however, could they be perceived as another hill to climb for the more introverted teacher?
JH: I do think collaboration is essential for teachers. Just as you would want your students to collaborate, it has to be a structured collaboration, however. There were plenty of meetings I sat in on that were not, quite frankly, that advantageous to me as a teacher. But others were very helpful and I communicated positively with the other teachers. So I think that collaboration was essential to me becoming a better teacher and to us becoming a better department. But constant collaboration and the need to be constantly social just for the sake of appearences or for the sake of checking things off on a list is not necessarily helpful in the long run.
In the book, you provide a list of proactive steps introverted educators can take help alleviate daily pressures, including finding some sort of sanctuary or quiet space. You actually created a reading nook in your classroom where you could decompress.
JH: Well, I was lucky in that I kept the same classroom for all five years so I didn't have to move my stuff. I knew my classroom space really well and I knew how to use it to best serve my students and serve myself. But many teachers never have a permanent classroom, so it's up to each educator to try to figure out what works for them. I've spoken with teachers whose sanctuary was just their car. They would just go to the parking lot and sit in their car for five minutes. That was what they needed to just be alone for a couple of minutes. So it doesn't have to be anything fancy. I went all out because, as an English teacher, there was a reason to have a bunch of books on the shelves and places for my students to sit and read. But it served a dual purpose in helping me out as well.
We could be depleting the talent pool if introverts resist entering a profession generally perceived to be a better fit for extroverts. What would you say to someone who is interested in teaching but suspects that their introverted nature will prevent them from being successful?
JH: Most teachers are extroverts because I think the field naturally draws on that kind of personality. It's important to recognize and understand, however, that the idea that you can't be a good teacher and an introvert is completely false. They should know that the fact they are introverted doesn't mean they can't do anything that any other teacher can do. Introverts can be amazing teachers. They can be really passionate about reaching their students. It's just important to figure out from the beginning what boundaries to set for themselves and to enforce those boundaries to the best of their ability.
We need introverted teachers because they can be advocates and cheerleaders for the introverted students. It's two sides of the same coin. They can reach those students, bring them onboard and give them the space that they need. And the introverted teachers need to feel as though they can own their own nature and their own temperament, be OK with it, and not feel as though that makes them less of a good teacher.